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First Classes that Make the Grade

Shortly after my daughter Christiane's first birthday, it became clear to me that squeaky toys and trips to the playground just weren't cutting it on the entertainment front. As I pored over books and magazines looking for yet another way to stimulate her, it occurred to me that what we really needed was an activity that took place somewhere else. Enrolling in a toddler class together proved to be the perfect solution for both of us.

That's not to say you should expect a class to boost your child's IQ. "That's not what these classes are about," says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero To Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, in Washington, D.C. "They are about exposing your toddler to new faces and experiences -- and introducing you to parents with kids of the same age."

Indeed, one fringe benefit of enrolling your child in a toddler program is making friends yourself. "As a first-time mom who had just moved to the suburbs, going to Gymboree with my daughter, Abbie, was a great way to get to know my new town," says Margie Lynch, of Chatham, New Jersey. "I now have a wonderful circle of friends -- and so does Abbie."

Unfortunately, not all toddler classes are created equal. "Be sure to visit a variety of programs to find the best one for you and your child," says Beth Teitelman, a toddler educator and director of the 92nd Street Y Parenting Center, in New York City. "There's a lot more to a toddler class than keeping all the kids in one room." Here's, what to look for before you sign up.

Whether it's a music session or a gym class, the program must fit the specific physical and emotional needs of a toddler. "For a child this age, the point is exploring the world through the senses, not going home with a completed project or learning a specific skill," Teitelman says. "An 18-month-old can't stand at an easel and paint a landscape. But she can dip her hands into the paint and see how it feels."

Toddler classes should also be repetitive. "Though this seems of little value to adults, nothing is old hat to 1-year-olds," Teitelman observes. "Each time they repeat an activity, they're learning something new."

Similarly, the tempo of the class should be toddler-friendly. "Young children may need a lot of transition time between activities, so the teacher needs to take that into account," says Teitelman. Every child has a different threshold of interest, too, so a class that allows kids to begin and end projects at their own pace is ideal.

Two important criteria to consider: How many children participate in the class? And how long does it last?

An hour-long program gives toddlers enough time to make transitions between the activities without getting bored or overstimulated. As for class size, smaller is definitely better. "Too many children diffuses the experience. If the class seems too crowded, it probably is," Lerner says.

"Though much depends upon the activity and the size of the space, more than a dozen kids with one parent per child is usually too much," adds Teitelman.

When it comes to working with toddlers, degrees in early-childhood education are less important than experience with young children. "Our teachers run the gamut from former preschool instructors to mothers with a creative flair who simply love children," Teitelman says. Look for a warm, engaging person who has strong leadership skills and an aptitude for organizing lots of kids.

"Be sure to ask her what her goals are for the class," Lerner advises. "Having fun should be at the top of the list. If she says, 'Brain development,' I'd be dubious." A teacher should, however, be able to articulate what she's trying to accomplish, such as introducing the concepts of fast and slow in a music class.

She should also be able to handle a wide variety of typical toddler behaviors. If a child is reluctant to participate, for instance, she should let him spend some time watching from his parent's lap before he jumps in; cajoling a stubborn toddler into an activity is a surefire recipe for a meltdown.

Perhaps most important, teacher demonstration should be kept to a minimum. "Teachers should allow the children to find their own ways of tackling a task," says Lerner.

A good toddler class gets parents involved in the fun. "One of the most wonderful aspects of taking a class together is that it will strengthen the bond between you," Teitelman says.

Margie Lynch agrees. "It was so rewarding to watch Abbie try new things and interact with other kids," she says. As for Christiane and me, toddler classes have given us a new lease on play. Our weekly Gymboree session gives us something to look forward to -- and duplicating the class activities on our porch makes home a more interesting place.

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