Thursday, January 29, 2009

Preschool Sports Teams and The Little Gym

I'm conflicted over places like The Little Gym, Gymboree Play & Music, KinderDance and local organized sports teams for young children.

I don't believe there is anything intrinsically wrong with physical learning programs for little ones. But every time I drive by these darling little gymnastic class places for tykes or see signs encouraging parents to sign up their children under 6 for an organized sports team, my heart sinks.

Just last week, I read Entrepreneur Magazine's list of growing children's businesses. There are 27 listed national franchise businesses that offer children's fitness programs. This year, The Little Gym ranked #126 of profitable franchisees of Entrepreneur's top 500. These programs are growing.

And this bothers me.

I believe two of the chief reasons children's fitness programs are growing are parents are concerned their children are not getting enough physical activity and parents want their children to excel.

Fitness programs certainly have physical and social benefits. But I'm afraid the benefits of a three year old gymnastics class or a five year old soccer team do not outweigh the costs.

"Once upon a time the vast majority of children came home from school and played in backyards and neighborhoods with friends. This supported the argument that children had plenty of time after school and on weekends for play and the subsequent social experiences after school...Our children are risk of losing their right to play. " (Jambor, T. (Fall, 1994). School research and social development.)

My greatest concern is that so many children these days are thrown into programs and activities which actually take away much of their unstructured play time (believe me, kids don't get it at school). And parents, for fear their children are likely to fall behind, turn to these structured programs to get or keep their children ahead - smarter, brighter, better.

And businesses know that. They capitalize on this fear.

That's the second part of my problem: consumerism. New parents like myself are bombarded even during pregnancy with a myriad of things "every child" needs or every good parent should have.

Consumerism and fear lead so many parents (including myself) to the point where they feel they have only one option: to get my child ahead later, I have to get them ahead now.

And I refuse to believe that. I refuse to believe that consumerism and fear should guide how I raise my child.

Again, I see nothing wrong these programs in themselves. I think alot of them are darling and wonderful family-oriented programs.

But I also see that many parents fall in the trap of thinking that the best way to foster a child's physical, social and educational well-being is to put them in that new soccer lead, or dance class or kid's gym.

I believe children can be healthy, social and physical without paying any money to a center or having to sign up child up for organized sports.

"The absence of open-ended play is also a problem for the school child, who used to create games with neighborhood friends, adjusting the rules as needed. Instead, from age five onward, many children join sports teams and are taught to play according to someone else's rules." writes Heidi Britz-Crecelius in her book Children At Play.

My educational background and experience shows me that children need more unstructured time - time to just run and play on their own terms, limited only by their imagination.

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