Busy babies

It's all work for today's toddlers, says Victoria Matthews. Anxious parents enrol them in gruelling lessons from the start
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"YOUR son has settled in very well at nursery," said the team leader at the beginning of my two-year-old's third week, "but I'm sorry to have to say that he doesn't appear to be interested in either painting a picture of his house, or in participating in the cut-and-stick corner. And he got quite cross when we encouraged him to do some work on the jigsaws.

"Louis is a very nice child," she added appeasingly, "but I'm afraid his only interest appears to be in playing with model cars."

The implication that my toddler was somehow deficient in preferring beaten- up Dinkies to a session in his still pristine art overalls shocked me at first. After all, weren't tiny children supposed to be just that, learning about the world through their own imaginative play, rather than being forced to mimic the skills-oriented preoccupations of adults?

But according to the educational psychologist Jeni Hooper, society's current obsession with being successful at everything we do is driving some parents to push even the tiniest of children into competing.

A former personnel director for a large food company, Annabel, mother of Nicholas, 3, and Christopher, 13 months, admits she tends to treat her offspring more like salespeople with targets than like tiny children. But, as many other parents do, she firmly believes that even the very young need structure in their lives. "I keep my two busy from morning until bedtime," she says. "There's the art class once a week and we've just joined a music club where they sing and play proper scaled-down instruments.

"Oh yes, and there's French on a Saturday morning - just songs and rhymes to begin with, but it all gives them a feel for the language."

While she agrees that children must be given time to play, she hates the thought of their pre-school years being "wasted on tea parties" when there are so many more stimulating things they can do. Tellingly, maybe, she adds that much of the group-joining is aimed at keeping her own sanity; her main fear being that it would be all too easy to become some sort of bovine housewife stuck in front of daytime telly while her kids systematically wreck the house around her. (Probably in retaliation for all those classes.)

But according to Penelope Leach, author of the child-care manual Baby and Child and more recently Children First, the imposition of an adult timetable on a pre-school child is neither necessary nor desirable:

"I think it's very sad that parents feel they have to keep their children busy all the time, because like all human beings, they genuinely need time to think as well as to learn. I'm not saying it does them any harm to be exposed to French, or to art, at a very early age, but being carted from group to group is more likely to make them anxious than relaxed enough to learn. Children of this age need lots of love and reassurance and some social contact with other toddlers. They do not need to acquire any other skills than those they instinctively learn through play, or through talking to parents and carers."

In the London borough where I live, a large proportion of working mothers send their under-fives to privately run nurseries, chosen as much for the intellectual and motor skills they claim to teach as for the warmth of the carers. But nursery or playgroup is just the beginning.

Among the privately run classes available to toddlers of two and up in my area - with fees ranging from pounds 5 to pounds 15 per week per child - are Making French Fun, Pre-School Pottery, Music Appreciation for Under Fours, All About Art and a new one: The History of Greenwich and its Kings and Queens. Added to that are the skills imparted when children are barely awake from their long sleep in the womb: Baby Gym, Baby Swim and Baby Dance are the bare minimum; more ambitious parents join organised music sessions where children who can hardly sit up are praised when they bang a drum.

And then there are the toys. Although the makers of so-called educational toys for pre-schoolers will freely admit in private that the average infant needs no more stimulation than an empty sandwich box and a cotton reel, the complexity - and of course price - of pre-school toys grows ever more alarming.

Given the relentless round of stimulating activities that are available to new mothers and their babies just as soon as the stitches are out, we must be raising the most accomplished generation of toddlers ever. Or are we?

"Well, first of all it's mainly middle-class parents who are concerned with skills for under-fives," says Penelope Leach, "because frankly, working- class mothers wouldn't be stupid enough to get their three-year-olds learning French or history. If the child enjoys slapping a bit of paint on a piece of paper or banging a triangle, then fine. But to dress it up as serious teaching is to make the child anxious about living up to his or her parents' expectations and even to set the child up for failure."

At least part of the reason for the apparent explosion in pre-school courses is the guilt of working parents, who partly assuage their feelings by choosing a care system that involves heavy doses of learning.

"I think there is definitely an element of exploitation in some of these courses," says Margaret Lochrie from the Pre-School Play-groups Association, "and I would want to know far more about the qualifications of the teachers before I recommended any such course."

And she adds: "Once children get to school, they will be given very little choice about how they spend their days. To impose a rigid regime of learning on them before that is to misunderstand the nature of very early childhood."

In Penelope Leach's perhaps rosy view of toddlerhood, the pre-school period should be packed with impromptu play sessions and long walks in the park. But isn't there a danger that a child from such an unpressurised background will find the classroom too demanding?

"There are ways in which you can prepare a small child for school," says Jeni Hooper, "and they include encouraging them to ask questions and sharing books with them. Tiny children are not learning machines and you can easily put them off by expecting too much of them too soon. The important thing is to enjoy one another's company. Everything your children learn will flow from that." !