SIX-YEAR-OLD Kerryanne Needham has a hectic life. After school she goes to five different classes: French, swimming, ballet, disco dancing, tap and drama, plus trampolining in the holidays. Her mother, Karen, is resigned: 'She's always wanted a busy life. But whether that's because I've encouraged it from a young age and she doesn't know any different, I don't know.'

Kerryanne's exhausting schedule is not unusual. It's now the norm for children and even babies to lead highly organised lives. Kerryanne started Tumbletots - a gym class for toddlers - when she was one; by the time she went to school she had been to playgroup, ballet, music, swimming, French and a small pre- school learning group.

Children's lives now are poles apart from the unstructured childhoods of the 1950s. Then, apart from the odd ballet lesson, pre- school classes were unheard of and children relied on parks, streets and friends for stimulation.

Middle-class parents today have more money to spend on their children. This, combined with a desire to give their offspring a 'head start', has been answered by a boom in activities costing anything from a few pence to pounds 5 a session. Parents seem to have lost faith in their own ability to stimulate their children through everyday activities. Instead there's a reliance on classes to teach skills that in the past children would have been left to develop at their own pace.

The pressure to get children learning undermines even the most level-headed parents. Those like Jane Myerson - who has two children under five, and worked part-time when her daughter was small - are particularly vulnerable. She says: 'I really went through it when India was a baby, feeling 'Oh God, I must do this and that'. I was at home only part of the time, and I felt it was my duty to take her to these things. I met women who took their children to something every day. I took her to music, to gym, to ballet, which was much too disciplined - pink tutus at two-and-a- half were a big mistake.'

Philip Davies, who co-runs the London-based early-learning programme Crechendo, attributes the escalating demand for pre-school activities to the increase in working mothers: 'Parents are concerned that while their child is being looked after by somebody else they're getting quality time. They want to think their nanny is doing something structured rather than just sitting around having tea parties. That's often taken to an extreme. Some children are programmed throughout the week, with barely a bit of free time. We think that's over the top.'

But are all these classes worth the expense and effort? And do they have lasting influence on a child's development? In retrospect, Jane Myerson thinks not. 'Having had a second child I now see how misdirected a lot of my enthusiasm was. Classes like the music group we went to are more for the mothers, to make them feel they're doing something good for their child.

'Looking back, it was much too much, much too early. My feeling now is to let them get on with whatever they want to do, to play their own creative games. After all, I have two pretty imaginative children who are full of energy and they're just as happy in the garden with a bucket of water.'

Professional opinion supports Jane's conclusions. Audrey Curtis, a consultant in early childhood education at the Institute of Education, is highly sceptical about the value of classes, particularly for the very young: 'The sort of stimulation that children under three require is not a formal programme. I don't say they harm the child but I've got reservations about their value. The child's development of all skills will be just as good with everyday objects and activities, like climbing up stairs, or on and off a chair. The kind of equipment you find in most parks is better than any indoor formalised activity.'

In Ms Curtis's view, a class is only acceptable if the child gets pleasure out of it. She warns of a danger in too much organisation: 'If a child doesn't have much time to himself he is not going to learn to concentrate well. Some middle- class parents never give their children time to play. Yet there is evidence that children who play imaginatively are likely to do better at school. They're likely to concentrate more, to have more imagination. And that does seem to be linked to later literacy and the ability to think divergently and problem solve. Children need time to stand and stare.'

Kate Frood, headmistress of a state primary school in north London, also stresses the importance of play. 'There are definitely kids here who are on overkill: they're tired, they've got no time to just have a friend round and mess about. They never have time just to be themselves, to be children, to be bored, because they're constantly being stimulated with endless classes. What about just being in the kitchen with your mum? I think that's important.'

Ms Frood says it is impossible to see any links between individual achievement and activities outside school. 'Children who go to classes usually come from families who are actively trying to stimulate and interest their children. It's obvious which children have interesting and supported lives. But I really don't think you can say 'Look at Theodora, it's because she goes to ballet on Thursdays'.'

Yet many parents remain convinced of the benefits of formal programmes, not least in preparing children for school and nursery. The trend towards starting children in mainstream education earlier has made parents anxious to get them socialised and used to discipline as young as possible.

It is a new pressure which Jane Cameron, headmistress of a private nursery school in Kensington, is acutely conscious of. 'The problem is that there is such a terrible drive for doing everything so soon. There are tests at three-and-a-half to get into pre-prep schools, so some parents panic and once their children are in nursery school they want to know if they can write their name and count. The pressure is coming at such an early age that there is very little time for them to relax and enjoy things.'

Ms Cameron, however, has found that children with experience of programmes such as Crechendo settle into nursery more easily than others, because they are used to routine and listening to adults other than their parents. She also believes that early lessons, particularly in music, can have a positive impact on later skills. But she stresses the need for balance: 'Parents shouldn't provide so much that the child needs to be entertained all the time. I see parents coming to collect their children and if they're only going home to lunch with mummy there are sometimes tears.'

Ms Cameron is a realist. She knows that many modern children, privileged or poor, spend huge chunks of time in front of television. Like most parents she believes that any activity must be preferable to that. The danger is that in trying to combat the passivity of modern childhood with an endless round of activities, parents will only make things a lot worse.

(Photograph omitted)