Never Too Young to Learn

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Classes Geared Toward Infants, Toddlers Gaining Popularity

There’s a new kind of baby boom abloom. Across the country and around the world, enrichment classes for tiny tots have become increasingly popular with parents. These courses are geared toward infants and toddlers and typically feature music and movement lessons, swimming or gym encounters, yoga for the youngest, and even sign language.

“Using sign language with infants, including hearing infants, goes back 20 years, but it’s recently taken off. It’s hot right now,” said school psychologist and Kindermusik educator Joanne Finn of Pleasant Hill, Calif. In fact, according to a 2006 National Public Radio piece, teaching sign language to little people is a “growth industry,” and the demand for baby-signing videos has gone up a whopping 400 percent over the last few years.

The international numbers are telling the same story: Kindermusik, one of the oldest and largest companies in the baby-enrichment movement, was started by several West German music teachers in the 1960s. It now licenses 5,000 music educators in 35 countries to teach under its banner.

Other examples abound: Gymboree Play and Music program, for instance, provides enrichment classes for children from infancy through age 5. Started in 1976, it now has 500 franchise sites in 30 countries. Colorado-based Signing Smart, meanwhile, offers baby sign classes throughout the United States under the banner of Sign and Sing, Kindermusik International’s sign-language curriculum for parents with hearing children. And yoga classes for children are becoming increasingly common as well, according to Parenthood.com.

Critics and Advocates With growth comes criticism. The movement has been charged with trying to over-program children, create “baby geniuses” through unproven techniques, and subvert playtime and personal space that kids need to become healthy adults. Responding to the critics, supporters of these tot programs say they serve rather than subvert young children’s needs and enhance rather than unravel family ties. They also note that classes are based on the research and wisdom of experts and provide experiences that are healthy and fun for parents and children alike.

Washington, D.C.-based baby yoga instructor Anna Staton said the goal of yoga for infants is to “dedicate time and space for parent-child bonding, to create a tranquil hour in our sometimes chaotic lives.” Kindermusik similarly stresses that the parent is the child’s most important teacher. “It’s not about making little music geniuses out of babies,” said Beth Frook, a Kindermusik teacher in Maryland and Virginia. “The goal is to help children’s souls, brains and bodies develop in healthy ways and to teach parents how to interact with children. Music is a fantastic tool to do that.”

What Experts Say Child development experts are cautiously positive about such classes. “I know of no direct scientific evaluation of the benefits of any of these programs,” said Nathan Fox, director of the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Maryland in College Park. However, Fox, who specializes in infant and child cognitive and social development, added that “providing opportunities for infants and their caregivers to interact around stimulating and enjoyable activities is a good thing. Providing stimulating environments for infants is beneficial not only for the infant, but also for the parents.”

Similarly, the University of Michigan’s John W. Hagen told National Public Radio that baby sign-language classes are “one of many things known to be generally good” for children and may confer an advantage by giving the baby a boost emotionally or intellectually.

But can music, for instance, really make you smarter? An article by E. Glenn Schellenberg published in December 2005 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science gave mixed reviews. Listening to music, Schellenberg wrote, can improve a person’s intellectual performance by enhancing mood and motivation, but the effect is short term. However, he noted that “music lessons in childhood tell a different story. They are associated with small but general and long-lasting intellectual benefits.”

Music and Movement for Youngest Music and movement classes for babies and toddlers are offered in the Washington area by a number of national and international programs that have local franchises or teacher-training and licensing arrangements. Most sites are in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, although Virginia’s Parent Child University offers a Kindermusik class at D.C.’s National Zoo.

Kindermusik International is a global publisher of music and movement materials for teachers, parents and young children, including newborns. Not a franchise operation, it provides training and licensing to music educators who are then allowed to use the Kindermusik logo, name, curriculum and materials. It’s highly popular, with more than two dozen Kindermusik programs and solo instructors in the D.C. area alone.

One Kindermusik educator is Beth Frook, owner and director of Little Hands Kindermusik based in Lake Ridge, Va. Frook employs nine Kindermusik instructors, including a stay-at-home dad, and offers classes in Alexandria, Fairfax, Manassas, McLean, Reston and five other Virginia locations, with plans for classes in Olney, Md., in the works.

Weekly meetings are offered in sessions organized by age group, with the first Kindermusik level for newborns to 18 months and the second for those 18 months to 3 1/2 years old. Although session lengths can vary, a standard 15-week course costs 0 plus for materials.

The classes are for children accompanied by parents or other caregivers—grandparents, nannies, aunts and uncles—although most babies bring their moms to class. “Parents can develop friendships and social contacts, and it can keep them from being isolated, although our primary focus is to help parents enjoy their children,” Frook said.

“Classes provide face time, not ‘screen time,’” she added, explaining that classes first involve personal introductions or update reports by the caregivers, then launch into singing, dancing and playing together if toddlers are involved, and simpler activities with infants such as rocking, singing or listening to lullabies, and other rhythmic movements. “It’s learning, but it’s not all ‘in your head.’ Children’s brains respond to movement,” and children learn best through physical activity, according to Frook.

Kindermusik also gives participants books, CDs and musical instruments to use at home. “We provide ideas on how to use them and information about children’s development—tools to interact creatively with children and reasons to do it,” Frook said, emphasizing that no musical expertise is required.

Older children get more formal music lessons—which still focus on enjoyment—and by age 8, they will have learned to read and compose music and play five types of instruments. Percussion involving shakers and drums is a staple at all levels, and children are also exposed to the xylophone, whose skills transfer to the piano.

“They have fun and want to continue,” Frook said. “Research shows that musical children score higher on some tests and are capable of more advanced intellectual skills than children without this exposure. And music has value in and of itself, of course.”

Kindermusik takes a multicultural approach to vary the sounds that children hear. Different cultures feature different tone modalities and rhythmic patterns, Frook explained, so songs in languages other than English are included at each level. “The musical language of each culture is distinct and, as in other kinds of language learning, it’s important for a child to be exposed to it when they’re young,” so their brains will be able to easily process those patterns when they’re adults, she said.

Frook, formerly an aide on Capitol Hill who was also a musician, became a stay-at-home mom when her children arrived. “I was thrilled to discover Kindermusik and became a licensed teacher,” she said. Her home-based business quickly grew and is now in its 14th year with multiple locations.

Another baby music provider in the area is the Gymboree Play and Music franchise, which boasts some 500 programs in 30 countries that provide activities for young children from birth through age 5.

According to program material, Gymboree offers “mommy and baby” infant yoga, family music programs, art and music classes for young children, as well as baby sign-language classes and “Global Kids,” a multicultural journey that explores universal play, music, dance, customs and activities.

Sign Language Before Speaking Although she offers a variety of local Kindermusik and baby sign-language classes, Tracey Kretzer, a school counselor and owner of Parent Child University, favors Signing Smart classes, in part because of personal experience: Her own daughter, taught sign language as an infant, created a three-word sentence in sign at six months, long before babies typically talk.

Kretzer offers Signing Smart classes at five locations, four in Virginia and one in D.C., which usually last 15 weeks each. Prices vary, with an approximate range of 0 to 0 per class, plus material fees. Signing for infants is offered as a way for parents to communicate with children who are too young to speak and vice versa, as a way for the infants to express wants and needs that caregivers usually have to guess at in response to crying.

Its supporters say signing enhances language skills and accelerates learning, although solid scientific evidence for this does not presently exist. But whatever future research demonstrates, classes are clearly pleasing present-day parents. Kretzer’s classes are usually full, with up to 12 infants in each.

So what happens in these classes? “In the opening class we sit in a circle. I introduce the program and the home materials. Parents get a book and a DVD that shows a few signs multiple times. Children love the repetition. Signs are simple. ‘Hello’ is a salute. ‘Milk’ is a hand clench, like milking a cow,” she explained.

Games and play follow. “I have a bear costume and we’ll sing and sign [the popular tune] ‘The Bear Goes Over the Mountain,’” Kretzer said. “Or we’ll sing and act out ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,’” another well-known song with hand gestures many parents will already know.”

At the end parents are offered a 10-minute strategy session, with time to ask questions, after which they go to various activity centers with their babies, such as a ball center.” The class concludes with a group gathering and a game or a song.” Peek-a-boo is popular.

“Learning sign language does not delay speech—quite the opposite,” Kretzer said. “Signing helps a child talk sooner, and children who learn sign will have more early words than children who don’t. It’s easy to learn and it’s fun. You will be able to have a conversation with your infant, to know what’s in his or her mind. It’s terrific to talk with your baby!”

Baby Yoga: A Moving Experience D.C.-based baby yoga instructor Anna Staton works as a public health adviser during the week and offers baby yoga at a U Street location on Saturdays. Experienced in teaching adults, she was recently trained in a baby yoga program developed by Helen Garabedian called “Itsy Bitsy Yoga.” A six-week session runs , but drop-ins are encouraged and cost for each class.

“Children are natural-born yogis,” Staton said “For example, when they go from early crawling to standing up, they will naturally do the ‘down dog’ [a bottoms-up] yoga pose.” However, she added, “Baby classes are primarily dedicated time and space for parent-child bonding. It’s an hour together. Other family members are welcome. We get dads and grandpas, for example.”

Classes start off with introductions. “We talk about what’s happening in our lives and our babies’ lives. It’s a social time and community building. Then we’ll do centering through a brief meditation, with babies held in front of us.” A series of songs and poses follow. “Mom [or dad] is the facilitator and helps a child with a pose, but we always let the children lead,” Staton explained.

For fussy infants whose “other needs have been met—food, a diaper change—and the fussing remains,” Itsy Bitsy Yoga offers several “magic poses,” according to Staton. One is called the “divine drop,” where the parent stands, holds the newborn, and does a fast squat saying “whoosh,” and then comes back up. “It calms babies,” Staton observed.

In all cases, classes are a “time to be flexible in what we do, to slow down. We teach parents and children to de-stress and let mom or dad access natural parenting skills,” Staton said. “We teach our parents a mantra: ‘You are the perfect parent for this child.’”

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999