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Preschoolers & Enrichment Classes: what's good?

Right now, I have three kids in different age gropus, but a preschooler I have not.  However, when my elder kids were wanting to start sports, dance, swim, yoga, I searched high and low for classes that were a good fit: affordable, fun, convenient.

An urbanMama recently emailed:

I have a three year old.  I am kind of a DIY type with the whole kid thing, tending to go to the river instead of swim lessons, turn up the tunes instead of dance camp, climb trees instead of circus.  Partly because it's how I grew up, partly because it is cheaper, partly because all that structure doesn't really turn me on, but also just because my kid is still so small.  So many of my fellow parents, and their kiddos, though, have been in the world of planned-and-paid-for activities for a while now.  Body Vox, Do Jump, Parks and Rec, art classes, music classes, swim classes - it seems that every kid over a year is signed up for something.  So I am beginning to feel a little negligent.  Maybe she does need "enrichment."  She has tons of friends, and I share parenting with other moms, so socialization is not the issue (at all), but, in this world of specialization, maybe she would benefit from the right teacher - someone who is not a "mama".

My question is this: which are the good classes, that are not expensive but are also not just paper glue and glitter, or a basket of shakers and a boom box... For me to commit not just to paying someone, but also to schleping my kid somewhere on a regular basis (cuz you know the travel time is going be greater than the class time), I want to know that the people who are doing it are into it.  Also, up until now, all the classes are mommy-and-me, (the adults all acting like awkward kids and the kids are all looking at the adults like they're nuts) but at 3 there start to be classes which are 3-5 year olds, which my kid would be into because she loves the bigger kids, but she's not the type to just jump off my lap and into the fray in a room full of strangers...

Are you children in the 3-5 year old range in some kind of classes?  


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Music Together. It's not super cheap but well worth it.

I second Music Together!! Totally worth it. We have done Parks & Rec classes (which she enjoyed but didn't seem that different from what we could generate at home; I did like having something scheduled though, esp. in the winter) and a gymnastics class (she did learn some skills beyond what "open play" time would provide). At 4, my daughter was ready to do a class alone (while I watched) but she also attends a preschool/daycare so is familiar with the group situation + adult teacher (children at 3 who hadn't had this experience seemed overwhelmed by the gymnastics class, or had a hard time following directions vs. doing whatever they felt like... By age 4 following directions, i.e. to follow an obstacle course, seemed easier for the kids).

Co-op preschool. We started in a 2 morning/week program, with me being a helper twice monthly. It is far less expensive than preschool and the parents are an huge part of it. We also did gymnastics at The Children's Gym. Kids have to move in organized groups from event to event, and sometimes sit while waiting their turn, but these are good skills to learn.

I say let your kid be a kid and don't worry so much about structured classes right now. It seems like we have gone mad with enrichment activities for our kids! Our policy has been to wait for our daughter to ask for it before we consider it (besides swimming lessons, which we've done every summer). Prior to that, we let her hang out with us and with other kids and do fun things that way - just like you're doing now.

So, we did some dance (at PP&R) when she was 4 1/2 because she wanted to try it. And, some gymnastics (again, at PP&R) in the winter over the last 2 years, but that's it.

Now that she's in 2nd grade, she's starting to have her own ideas about classes/enrichment. The rule is, one thing at a time outside of school and if she tries it, she has to commit to the class session. She was briefly hot on soccer this summer, but decided not to do it in the fall after all (whew!). She wants to take a ballet class, so I'm now looking for a reasonable Saturday option. But, I see no reason to put her into three or four enrichment classes in addition to full-time school (and some aftercare - we both work). Her life is structured and enriched enough!

I liked having somewhere to be/something to do, esp. in the winter. We did the open gyms at PP&R, some of the art classes there, some cooking classes, sports mix it up, dance. Also a time to connect with other parents/kids from the neighborhood. Teachers at SWCC always rememebered us, he has a good feeling about the community center. Now that he is older (6) we are doing one sport a season, plus he is in aftercare at school. We all seem to he need for a structured Saturday actibity, esp. in the winter.

At this age we did swimming for safety reasons but didn't really start other organized activities until kindergarten.

I think it depends on the kids' personalities. My oldest had to have organized classes at that age, or she misbehaved. She just needed an outlet. My younger two aren't as, um, high maintenance. So, they haven't had as many classes.

Music together is good.
We do swim weekly year round. Great exercise, and it's something I insist my kids do for safety. They get to choose one other thing. They all have chosen gymnastics, so we do that once a week too. My oldest also loved Do Jump - but they don't take kids til age 4.

We did a camp at NWCT this summer that was AWESOME! My kids would all love to do that now, but we have enough with school, nastics and swim. They also have mommy and me classes at the Oregon Zoo - they are one off classes focused on a certain animal, but they are fun and different than the usual stuff.

I hear the creative movement center is great for dance classes. Haven't tried it though.

But overall, I'd say if your child isn't asking for it, and you don't need that outlet, save your money - there will be plenty of activities to spend it on as they get older!

I agree with the commenters who suggests saving your money for when the kid gets a little older. Except swim lessons at the outdoor pools in the summer, because those are great! We put our older kid in a few activities when she was 3 and 4ish, and she enjoyed them, but they never felt worth it. Now that she's an ancient first-grader, she gets a lot more out of them.

I'm sorry but-what more would you want for a 3 yr old besides paper, glitter, shakers, etc? what's wrong with them being the tots that they are?
Do they need learn to read shakespeare at 3??
why are people in such a hurry to get their kids into structured play so young? it reminds me of the people who force the "teach your baby to read" dvd on their 5 month olds.

for heavens sake, let your 3-5 yr old paint, do glitter, shake marroccas(sp), or whatever. they're *todders*.

My three year old has really enjoyed sports classes through PP&R. He has been watching the big kids play sports at the park for years & likes having a chance to participate in a group setting. It is low key skills building with lots of running around. He has fun and burns some energy. I get to relax and the bleachers for half an hour. (we are in walking distance so commuting isn't much of a time commitment).

Where do people take swim lessons year round? I gave heard great things about Swim Babes buy it is so expensive. Looking for middle ground between Community pools and super spendy places.

Having just read an extensive study that found that today's kids are much less creative and much less able to problem-solve than kids in previous generations, I am ALL about paint, glitter, and random percussion/shakers. Yes to swimming lessons (for safety and fun), and yes to playing a few Spanish language CDs for kids during the day. No to a ton of things that take, take, take from family time and family money. When my 5 year old asks for ballet now, I go ahead and sign her up at a reputable place with a good teacher. But I am very wary of the weird ways we are scheduling our toddlers/preschoolers. Something my wise preschool teacher friend said last year sticks with me--someone had just asked about academics and how best to get preschoolers able to read. She (after 20 yrs as a teacher and very anti-academic work for preschoolers) said: "We will pay for how we are treating our children and their developing minds. Our society is going to pay a price." I feel like we already are.

Nuts About Nature through Parks and Recreation is a really great program. Experienced dedicated teachers, and very affordable.

Messy Art at PPR was great at the Sellwood Community Center. From shaving cream art to huge sheets of paper on the floor for painting with feet, my daughter loved it and these weren't things I wanted to do at home. You can also do swimming year round at PPR.

I think it depends on your kid and how much time you spend with them. I am SAHM with my almost three-year-old and there is no way he (or I) would be happy at home all week with glitter and shakers!! We spend tons of non-structured time at home, don't get me wrong, but he also has really loved Music Together (expensive but waaaaaay better than cc music classes), swim class, library storytime, and othr drop-in classes. I fully intend to have at least one or two one-hour activities per week scheduled for him until he starts school, but he can always choose not to go that day and do something else! He rarely does, and seems to really like new teachers and experiences.

I have a music and art based home child care. For many years I was an early childhood music specialist. The one difference in having your child go to a special class (not tons of them!), is the relationship between an adult who is not a mommy, and the child. This is an important foray into your child's self-identity as an individual, and not someone's child. My role as a teacher is so different from my role as a music specialist. Back then, I'd visit schools and teachers would say, 'It's been a really difficult day'. But because I wasn't in children's regular day-to-day world, we created something totally different together (and often magical). As a teacher, I'm one of those day-to-day people, and it's wonderful but quite different!
Jory Aronson

What about story time at the library? The best story times we've found also include music.

I suggest reading Simplicity Parenting by Kim Payne to understand why it's important not to over schedule our kids.

We used to belong to a self-organized playgroup, consisting of 4-5 kids (depending on the day) and 1 teacher. The "teacher" was a grad student studying early child psych or something similar. We found her through an ad we placed in some of the local colleges.

We took turns hosting the playgroup at our homes, and each family paid the teacher $5/hour. The group met 3 days/week for 3-4 hours/day.

The families involved were more interested in creating an environment for social interaction (not academic. As such there was a lot of glitter and paper scraps involved, but the teacher did do projects involving letter recognition and other low-key academic "exercises."

We sent lunches/snacks for our own children, so there was a meal element built into the day. A majority of the day, though, was spent doing something physical--exploring walks around the neighborhood, blowing bubbles, building forts, eventually they also took "field trips" to the local library.

I've heard of similar playgroups where the parents trade off watching the children, in lieu of paying a teacher. All of the families involved in our particular group, though, were happy for the break. :)

you don't always have to go pay someone to entertain your kid. why can't you do it? go buy a funky kids CD and let them move around to that. sometimes just a cool CD can break up the monotony. It's "ok" to have unstructured time at home. why do people think that every waking moment from the time their child is born has to be filled with some activity by a paid professional? jeebus..

I have to concur with others about not too much need for lots of scheduled classes but then again,,my kiddo was in a very sweet part time montessori preschool by 3 1/2....which gave him plenty of time with peers and some other loving adults that had a lot of things to offer him....it was just the right prep for school later...AND we did Music Together classes from the time he was 1 1/2 until he aged out at 5 years old...this was the best thing for us- it gave us both some time to enjoy being creative together with other kids and parents and I looked forward to it each week. We had the most amazing teacher too and that was such a great beginning for my son, who is so musically involved now at 7 that I know that MT gave him a great start at some real musical concepts, not just hokey nursery rhymes and dances....an exposure to many different cultural types of music as well as "hidden" concepts in music theory...plus music is amazing for brain development (as well as math later) but we didn't do the classes for all of these good reasons, we just did them because it was really fun!! I realize not every kid is INTO music as much as mine is but I also think that a parent's enthusiasm can make all the difference as to whether a kid is interested and involved in something....just my two cents but bottom line, do what feels right for YOU and YOUR kid, not what all the families around you are doing. P.S. MT is spendy (totally worth it) so we often asked for it as a present for b'days or holidays,and if you qualify, they will sometimes offer a partial (working) scholarship too.

I largely worked while my daughter was that age---and I really did like the experience she had at Y Arts child care. They also have art classes you could look into.

I'm really NOT that into structure, but I loved my daughter's ballet teacher (she started at about 4, I think there are beginning movement classes for as young as three). Miss Sarah at the Classical Ballet Academy in Sellwood is absolutely wonderful, enabling every child there (and her school has really grown) to feel completely special. If you think your child might have talent in that direction, so much the better---Miss Sarah's older, more serious students go on to receive dance scholarships in NYC.

Just seconding (thirding, fourthing) the idea of not overscheduling, though it really seems you get that and are in no danger of putting too much on your little one's plate.
Music Together is great. I have two, a baby and a 3-year-old. We all go on Saturdays, when Dad can go, too, and it's a family experience. Expensive, but if you can swing it, I do think it's worth it.
My 3-year-old is in preschool a few mornings a week, mainly because she has a huge need to connect all the time, wants to be around other kids, and I was beginning to feel emotionally exhausted. It's wonderful for her, and for me, but I don't think preschool is ever necessary.
PPR classes are fairly inexpensive. The swim lessons are fine -- not great -- but a good way to meet other kids in the neighborhood while letting your LO slowly learn more independence in the water. It's a life safety skill, IMO, and is the only thing that I insist that our kids must do.
One thing no one has mentioned -- and if you are an eastsider, it may be too much of a trek to you -- is the FREE story and stroll program at Tryon Creek State Park. It's really wonderful, gets kids outside, learning a bit about what goes on in their own backyard. We love Tryon Creek and spend lots of unstructured, wandering-around time there, too.

I think she's already doing GREAT! I wouldn't change a thing. :) But then, we're kind of old-fashioned. :)

My oldest only did one organized activity... Nuts about Nature. It is amazing. Dedicated, passionate teachers and real hands-on science. I highly recommend it.

My 2-year-old son has been going to classes at the Community Music Center since he was six months old. He LOVES it and we often sing songs from class at home. I work full-time and my son's at home with his dad. They go together. Aside from summer swim lessons, it's the one planned activity that they do together during the week.

The Early Childhood Music program (6 months to five years) has great teachers and they incorporate singing, story telling, music making, and movement in the class. The classes are fairly affordable ($88 for ten weeks) and need-based scholarships are available.

CMC is at SE 33rd Place and Francis, just a few blocks south of Powell Blvd. It's a fantastic Portland Parks & Recreation resource for kids and adults who want to learn to play an instrument or sing. The teachers are professional performing artist/musicians.


They also have a family-friendly series of concerts during the school year with performances about once a month on Friday nights. If you're looking to introduce your kids to music performance - this is a low cost way to do so. The concerts are free with a suggested donation of $15 per family.


Mama J: Northeast Community Center in Hollywood (old YMCA at 38th-ish in the little triangle between NE Sandy and NE Broadway) offers year round classes. I don't think you have to be a member in order to enroll your child. Classes are (or used to be, at least) taught by adults, rather than the teens that teach at PP&R and are offered year-round.

I should probably change my name to anonymous before I say this on this thread -- but Music Together drove me batty. My daughter said, by the time she was 3, "NO MORE LULLABYES! I want to hear some SCARY music!"-as we left our Music Together class -- never to return. We headed straight to Everyday Music, listened to a bunch of CDs, and she picked the ones she could move to! I love her.
I did enjoy Rookie Rock at Soundroots a little more, with the fabulous Tyleena.

We did take ukulele classes from Mr Ben at the Warehouse Cafe. I felt like that was money well spent. Before I worked all the dang time I hosted 'workshops' in my home.
I'd invite all the little people we knew over for a soapmaking/pictureframe making/baking party. whatever talents you have, teach them to the neighborhood kids. Then, your child gets to socialize and learn!

I try to do no more than one or two classes at a time or it becomes way too much, my son is also in part-time preschool. I think part of the time for classes is the parent's sanity! And not everyone is artsy/crafty/musically inclined. My son goes to a swim class once a week that's great (Dolfun) it's pricey but he's actually learning to swim as opposed to just getting used to water/singing, etc. like the community classes (not that there's anything wrong with that). We also just started a spanish playgroup once a week because learning another language is something I really value and want to share with my son. I think when he's four we'll probably venture onto soccer. But I agree that it's generally not a good idea to overschedule kids and let them use their imagination and appreciate childhood.

Oh and Lea, Music Together also got on my nerves haha though my son still loves the CD's. We did it for a few times and it was a good experience but I couldn't keep justifying the price and the songs got old.

Threre are so many opportunities for great classes for kids this age that it is hard to decide which one (if any) to enroll my 4 yr old son in. We tried Music Together once, this fall we will try a swim class. As a kids yoga teacher, I have seen the benefits of yoga on kids in this age range, especially ones who are what I like to call "high spirited", so I have to say that yoga a great choice also. To all you parents out there who have kids in preschool....let your school know you would like to see yoga offered in their classroom. That way, the cost doesn't come out of your pocket but your kids still reap the benefits. A win/win situation. Of course, you can find community classes also through Yoga Playgrounds.


I am the Creator & Lead Teacher of the Nuts About Nature program through PP&R that was mentioned above! We are dedicated and creative teachers, and we love working with young children! Our programs for 3-4 year olds, the "Lil' Nature Kids" program is very unstructured... allowing time for the children to explore and play and collect and experience nature first-hand. As teachers we join in the play, but strive to follow the children's lead. We love our youngest students so much - they are full of energy and curiosity!
Check out this year's brochure to learn more... www.portlandonline.com/parks/preschool

What side of town are you on? That will help determine what's available to you, as you don't really want to trek across town for a 30-min class for a 3 year old.

In Beaverton, we've had our 4 year old enrolled at Children of the Sea swim lessons since she's 6 months old. This was the only "crazy" scheduling thing we did until she turned 3. I grew up 5 min from a warm water beach and a pool in the backyard, and that's where I learned to swim. But since we don't have that here, I felt swim lessons were a life/survival skill that our little one needed to have.

Other than that, we got her into Parks & Rec at age 3. Soccer and tumbling. We thought she'd have fun and burn off all that toddler energy. In the winters here, it's hard to find ways for them to run run run around freely, and soccer was the BEST! They just run around like crazies for 30 minutes. And it's super cheap! Like $50 for 8 - 10 weeks of classes. Can't get much cheaper than that!

Tumbling...Tualatin Valley Parks & Rec has an incredible team of tumbling & gymnastics teachers at their Cedar Hills Rec Center. Each one's credentials are more impresive than the next's, and they all are more accomplished than the teachers at OGA, which charges a minimum of $75/mo. No thanks!

Mostly though, we got our 3 year old into soccer & gymnastics because we thought she'd have fun with it and because it'd allow her to burn off toddler energy.

Sounds like you've already got those things covered though with outdoor play & lots of trees to climb.

I wouldn't worry about it. The swimming, I'd worry about. The rest of it, they'll choose for themselves when they're ready.

You are doing fine. It isn't necessary for a child to participate in enrichment activities if they are going to the river, spending time playing with other children and doing art projects with you. I love the FREE Ladybug Nature walks because it gives them knowledge I dont' necessarily have (plant identification/seeing wildlife) and I put my kids in swimming class for the first time this year (5 & 7). I think 5 is a good age to start swimming class, maybe at 4. I think people put their toddlers in classes because a market has grown up around it: supply creates demand.

Alyssa - I would love for my kids a part of a Spanish playgroup. How does that work?

I totally get not wanting to fork over $ for your kid to do something you can easily provide (like shake a egg full of sand to music, the *todder* commenter missed the point entirely).

Have you considered gymnastics? My kid developed many skills and ways to use her body at Metro Gymnastics, and I've heard great things about Do Jump! Definitely consider Mother Earth School & their summer camp (Tryon Creek) - this was a huge confidence builder for my daughter, and she happily climbs to the tops of the trees now. Another fun idea is bouldering classes at a local gym, but I think it's way too expensive around here. Also awesome is Penny the puppeteer - she does free shows at local libraries.

Honestly, my kid has had huge benefits from music lessons. She plays violin beautifully and had begged for one for nearly a year before we caved to lessons - we thought her too young. If your kid is begging for music lessons, maybe give them the benefit of the doubt. Ours has developed many skills, taught herself to play her violin songs on the piano, and cries if she misses a chance to practise. She's no prodigy but the benefits of music have been enormous for her. That's really a kid-specific one, though. My other kid would sooner eat a violin than play one.

My name is Joel and last year I began an enrichment program called Soccer Shots (see: www.soccershots.org/pdx) .
We specialize in introducing soccer to kids 3-5 through a fun, non-competitive format. Our classes meet weekly at schools and parks and each class lasts 30-35 minutes. Soccer Shots is not about setting up teams to play in leagues, rather we have all the kids with all the balls all the time. Our classes involve a lot of fun and imagination (think animals, spaceships and volcanoes), since we use creative games to reinforce the soccer skills we teach. Also, since we aren't a feeder system for a club, we're about ensuring every child that joins us has a great experience, rather than identifying and developing top talent.

I really sell our program as soccer, and kids that join us do get taught a pretty sophisticated set of soccer moves, but really we just soccer as a platform to work on gross motor skills (balance, coordination, agility, body control), character building skills (patience, respect, encouragement, teamwork) and having tons of fun.

If you'd like to contact me, I'm at joel@soccershots.org or 503-688-3000. Additionally, our website (www.soccershots.org/pdx) has info on how to register for our classes. You can also contact me to see about bringing Soccer Shots to your school or creating a program in your neighborhood for you and your friends.

Since I know this posting isn't about soccer per se, I would like to say that my sense is that there are some really good programs and some pretty bad ones too - so I encourage parents to do their homework. Some questions I like to ask are:
Who administers the program?
Who are the actual teachers?
What are their qualifications?
Do they get criminal background checks?
My sense is that its often best to do what you seem to be doing here - asking other people who have had kids go through the program. But don't just ask the parents what they think - ask the kids too!

I don't want to bad mouth any other programs, but I will say that I have been impressed by some of the noises coming from NW Childrens Theater about what they do. Also, my kid cousin dropped my soccer class in favor of Kinderdance at her school - which she said had better "moves". My sister has triplets (and she's a teacher) and finds great benefit from taking her boys to a music class (although they are only 1.5 and a lot of the time I think its about just getting herself a break!)

I highly recommend gymnastics for toddlers. It builds discipline, character, and grace.

Cooking classes start at age 3 at the Merry kitchen in NE Portland. Been to one class and my boy had a blast. Class is 1.5 hours long, not really "inexpensive" but cooking is a lifelong lesson so to me it is worth it. Great teacher - good with the kids.

I'm also looking into more structured activities for my toddler (non-potty-trained 2.5-year-old boy) but find it hard to fit his nap schedule, my preferred schedule, and the like. Our awesome, part-time nannyshare sitter will be teaching outdoor wilderness classes for older kids all summer.

I will say my son seems to be doing just fine without it. At Sunnyside Swap Shop Co-Op / indoor play space / outdoor play space / etc, he has lots of socializing and playing. They have weekly music, language, and arts-crafts classes but he isn't interested in these nor in the library story times.

He speaks eloquently and endlessly, loves puzzles and books, can count to 30, all those things sound normal to me. So I hesitate on imposing too much structure, either, like preschool. Not sure what to do!

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