Every Saturday morning, a church hall on Auckland's North Shore is abuzz with the sound of little feet skipping about excitedly. The class-full of girls are all dressed in pinks and purples, their heads full of plaits and pigtails. Some are still in nappies.
A shiny star sticker has been placed on their right foot by their Irish dance teacher, Katie Kerrigan, in an attempt to teach them right from left. The girls hover around her like fans surrounding a celebrity. "We get a lot from The Wiggles," says Kerrigan, explaining how the Australian children's music group has helped make Irish dancing popular with youngsters.
Kerrigan started the toddler class two years ago, due to demand. Already teaching some of the top Irish dancers in the country, she noticed the little brothers and sisters of her students were eager to join.
"I knew there were preschool classes in ballet and gymnastics and so many other hobbies, so I thought why not do one for Irish dancing and teach them the basics, like music and timing.
Realistically, you have to realise they're not like a normal beginner class. They have no attention span so the classes are only half an hour long. I break the class up into three or four activities, and you have to let them be a little more free."
Kerrigan is not the only one adding under-5 classes to her teaching schedule. There are a multitude of extra-curricular activities available for tots these days.
Almost any class available for a school-age child now has an offering for toddlers, aged between two and four. Sometimes even younger. From soccer, rugby, yoga, hip hop, private tennis lessons, rock'n'roll – you name it – they can do it. And parents are not only shelling out big bucks to sign their kids up, but scrambling to enroll them and nab a spot on sometimes-lengthy waiting lists.
But are these activities really beneficial to children at this age, or is it just a ploy to prey on busy parents? Child psychologist and founder of Kidz Therapy Marie Kelly believes sometimes it could be a case of "Keeping up with the Joneses".
"Some parents are guilty of taking their children to different activities in the belief that it is absolutely necessary," she says. "The parents may genuinely want their kid to be exposed to as many experiences as they can but also might be feeling pressure from others.
Or they want to find a sense of belonging for themselves – there are benefits for parents, too, in terms of socialisation. I can't blame first time mums for that, as it can be a lonely journey."
While Kelly doesn't stipulate any particular age as being "too young", she does think there is only so much you can expect, both cognitively and physically, from toddlers.
"Children before 3 or 4 years cannot always sustain an activity for long. You can see that if you watch them in a natural setting or public kindergarten – they wander from activity to activity," she says. "However, you do see those kids who are exceptional at sports, like Tiger Woods was as a child with golf. If they are climbing out of their cots and all over furniture, they are adventurous children, so early gym classes might be just the ticket to fulfil their physical and sensory needs. Ultimately it's about doing what suits your child, bearing in mind their physical abilities."
START 'EM YOUNG
Four-year-old Sophie Harvey has been doing preschool activities since she was about two. Currently, she does three activities a week, one Irish dancing lesson and two swimming lessons – the latter of which her mum rightly calls a "life skill". Soon, she'll be adding a fourth activity to the mix: athletics.
Her mum, Tasha Harvey, admits it's a lot but maintains it's all led by her daughter. "With three older sisters, it's really a reflection of her being carted around to all their activities since she was a baby. I think it is a lot, and wouldn't suit every family. But Sophie is quite happy to do it all, and she enjoys it."
Harvey, spends most afternoons during the week ferrying her four daughters to various activities. But she says she's happy to do it, and can already see the benefits for Sophie.
"All of the activities give fitness, social interaction, brain development, memory, listening skills, the ability to follow direction and focus," says Harvey. "She will happily jump into a deep pool and get herself to the side, and she is also confident enough to get up in front of a large audience and dance to the music by herself."
While admitting it's a "huge investment" both cost and time-wise, Harvey believes it's worth it. "I do think there is value in toddler activities, provided the child is willing," she says.
Mum of two Danielle Gregory hasn't had such a positive experience. She signed up her eldest son Leo, now three and a half, for soccer classes when he was just shy of two, thinking he'd love it. "I thought it would be age-appropriate, but it really wasn't," she says. "As an occupational therapist, I know the different developmental stages of what kids can handle in regards to instructions. They were giving 7-step instructions for an 18-month-old to follow and it was ridiculous. My son ended up going and just kicking over the cones. It was frustrating. You ended up feeling like a bit of a failure."
On top of that, six football classes cost around $100. "Initially, I was shocked to learn a football class even existed for Leo's age. Those are definitely money-making classes. You'd need to have your child going to at least two or three six-week courses to get them to the point where they know what the hell they're doing. So that sucks you in to keep going."
"I considered not taking him back after two or three classes, but we'd paid so I didn't want to waste the money. We continued to the end. It wasn't enjoyable for us or for Leo. He loved kicking a ball around but for the structure of that class, he was too young."
Thankfully, not all classes charge. Tony Morrison from Wellington's Little Dribblers, offers free football classes for eager under twos.
"We realised quite quickly we couldn't really do anything with them at that age," he says. "So we made that class free. They turn up, get a ball, fiddle with the goals and the corner flags. We do a little session with them but don't teach them anything technical – just real simple stuff like putting their foot or nose on the ball."
Morrison's classes have been so popular that he's even had parents bring children who can't yet walk. "We had one kid come who just crawled around, playing with the ball. I think it's just about being in a football environment. Their feet might not be touching the ground, but they're taking it all in. Some won't do anything with us, but we hear when they go home, they try it out with a ball so we know they're interested."
So what's the alternative to all these extra-curricular activities? Psychologist Marie Kelly believes that actually, the best thing to do with toddlers is simply to play.
"I think going to local parks and letting the kids climb trees, swish leaves, and jump in puddles fosters wellbeing and resilience. And that can be a lot more satisfying than a structured class," she says. "The key is finding something physical the child likes to do – it could be walking to the shops or the library, chasing a ball or beach fossicking. The goal should be to provide exercise with a common sense approach."
Back at the church hall, time's almost up, and so is the attention of the toddlers. Some are rolling around on the ground, while others are running back and forth to check if their parents are still watching through the glass doors. Kerrigan patiently repeats the instructions, before giving them another sticker as a reward upon completion of the class.
Before they leave, she tells them to remember to practise. And will they? "Well, I always tell them to," she says afterwards. "But I know at this age they probably won't, unless it's with Emma on the Wiggles."