Starting Early

Activities for tiny tots

Being a parent means nurturing, guiding and helping - but it can also mean being dubbed Chief Chauffeur as you cart your little ones to and from events, activities and programs. The benefits of organized activities for kids are numerous, and there is also value in helping children gain an affinity for something they enjoy, which could help them avoid negative influences and maybe even determine a career path as they grow.

When to begin
Is it ever too early to start? "I think it is important to get children involved in activities early, [as] it helps them learn to socialize and deal with others in a fun setting," says Lisa Tanczos of the New Windsor Music Academy, who adds that music lessons not only build confidence and self-esteem but also improve motor skills. Her son, who was introduced to activities when he was 3 via tumbling classes, is now 5 and takes swimming and music lessons.

"Children benefit from activities from a very young age. Music is always a great way to engage children," adds Kimberley von Baeyer, school social worker at Orange-Ulster BOCES in Goshen. Some programs, she says, actually aim to engage children as young as a year old in both parent and child-type groups or toddler-only settings.

READ MORE: Questions to ask when choosing an enrichment program

Good sports
While von Baeyer points out that playing on sports teams can be an excellent experience for kids, she advises waiting until the child is at least 5-years-old to begin - when they are better able to follow clear, simple directions. By that age, children can also clearly verbalize if they don't like it and why. Although sports can help young children learn how to lose and win gracefully, they can also be inherently stressful, particularly if too much pressure is put on them too early, she says.

Sometimes, parents can push a little too hard, making children not want to participate at all. "This is an area where I see a lot of parents pushing their children, perhaps to re-live their own childhood or past dreams," von Baeyer adds. She cautions that over-zealous pushing can lead to children who simply do not want to participate.

Scouting chance
Von Baeyer, who is also a Cub Scout leader with her oldest son who is almost ready to begin his Eagle Scout Project, says that scouting is another activity that can kids can start when they are as young as 5. "It teaches the kids so many character building skills and helps them to learn to fulfill commitments, work hard, give back to their community, and to be proud of their achievements," she says.

The downside
Parents might wonder about how an activity can affect growing minds and bodies. Is it ever too early to begin structured programs for children? "Starting too early with too many activities can be detrimental to social development and self-esteem," says psychotherapist Jessica Bronner, a licensed mental health counselor from Pine Bush who has a private practice in Florida.

READ MORE: The best enrichment programs in the Hudson Valley

She suggests starting out with one activity and going from there. Some children, she adds, may ask to be involved in more activities and others may balk at the busy, structured lifestyle. "Children need to learn to have fun without structured activities and they absolutely need some downtime," she says. "There isn't an exact number of activities that a child should be involved in, every child is unique."

When to say ‘when’
After a trial class or two that your child really seems to enjoy, you sign him up for a 10-week program that, three-weeks in, he really doesn't seem to even like anymore. Now what? Von Baeyer says that it's important that parents are in tune with their child so that they don't end up forcing them to engage in activities that they simply don't want to do - and some of that involves simply observing and listening to them. But that doesn't necessarily mean that parents should automatically throw in the towel.

"It is important to teach children that they made a commitment, and they must finish out the season as part of a team, or as long as the commitment was made for," she says. With her own children, she says her policy was to let the children try anything once, see it through, and then if they didn't like it, they would move on and do something else. But because all children are different, she suggests that parents try to remain flexible and gauge it on a situation-by-situation basis.

"Some children make it easy to figure out, while others are so eager to please, they do not communicate their feelings, for fear of disappointing their parents," von Bayer says. "Whatever their path is, [it] should be supported, as their happiness is always the end goal."

Stacey Lutz is a mom, freelance writer and animal lover who lives in Wurtsboro