Toddler workouts: education or fun?

``THESE bubbles are excellent for developing eye-hand coordination as well as visual tracking in the baby.'' The speaker is Bev, and she's addressing the parents -- 15 or so -- who circle their toddlers on the trademark, multi-colored ``parachute'' that news photographers can't seem to resist. Bev blows the bubbles, and the delighted tots reach out as they drift to the ground.

We're at Gymboree, franchised play for ages three months to four years. Here in the Boston suburb of Newton, parents bring their tots to the auditorium at Temple Reyim for a 45-five minute session of ``play with a purpose.''

The auditorium is set up with climbers, slides, bouncers, rockers, and even a miniature basketball net for the budding Larry Birds, forming an inviting array around the room. It's neat stuff, the kind that's too big to have at home, and the music from Bev's tape player -- a combination of Cat Stevens and Muzak -- is softly beguiling. The kids wander freely from one station to another, some gamely bewildered, but others having a ball. When the group gathersfor exercises or the parachute, several toddle off to an empty bouncer or slide, but nobody seems to mind.

Bev is an earth mother in sweat pants, cajoling the children gently, leading them in songs, greeting one class after another with the disarming franchise ditty: One, two, three Here at Gymboree It's time to say `Hi, Susie' It's time to say `Hi, Lester' It's time to say `Hi, Bill'... and so on until she has, miraculously, greeted each one by name. (Like many instructors, Bev started off as a Gymboree parent.)

The parents enjoy it as least as much as the kids. ``I think it's more for me than for the kid,'' said one mother. ``It's nice to have something to look forward to.''

At only $5.50 a week, it's a chance to get out of the house, socialize, and let the kids enjoy themselves. The only off note is the developmental lingo.

``This will develop all the muscles from the arms down through the lower back,'' Bev says, as she shows the group how to help their infants hang from wooden monkey bars. ``Let's do roly-poly -- a great one for developing the coordination across the mid-line,'' she says at another point.

The Gymboree literature does stress fun, and even takes to task the ``superbaby'' syndrome.

Still, Michael Meyerhoff of the Center for Parent Education, raises a cautionary note.

The idea behind Gymboree is ``just fantastic,'' Dr. Meyerhoff says -- low-pressure, low-cost play in which parents get involved. But in his view, there is too much stress on developmental benefits. Meyerhoff's colleague, Dr. Burton White, once supported Gymboree, but is now consulting with another outfit, because of disagreement over this issue.

``It's a good, fun thing. It's innocuous,'' Meyerhoff concludes. But he assures parents that their children can develop the same abilities naturally from bouncing on the sofa at home.

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