Does Baby Need a Gym Class?

January 1, 2012 · 13 comments

in Daily Life, Development, Our "View" of Babies, Play

Today, I’m sharing an exchange from my mailbox:


Dear Lisa,

I have been reading many of your articles on facebook, as well  as following many of the RIE principles of parenting. We try to  raise our son respectfully. We do not allow him to watch TV, and we  have many open-ended toys. We recently started classes at Gymboree. (I wanted him to have the opportunity to interact with other children his age.) I find that the environment is overstimulating and my son often sits back and watches, rather than participates. I should also say that he has not started to walk on his own, and that all of the other children have. I see that most of the other parents push their children to try things and often “force” them onto a slide, etc. I have not done this, as I want him to explore the environment himself. I”m just getting nervous because he acts very different from the other kids and I wonder if  I should be worried, or if I have just raised him differently than the others? My question is, do you know anything about these types of classes? Would you recommend I nudge him to try the activities there? I look forward to hearing your opinions.

Sincerely,  Sheryl

For example, why sit around for the welcome song when he could explore a tunnel?

This baby wants to explore in his own way.

Dear Sheryl,

Thank you for your note, and please forgive me for not responding sooner. With your permission, I’d like to reply to your question in a blog post, as yours is a question I receive frequently. I am very familiar with Gymboree classes, and generally find them to be overwhelming and overstimulating for most children under the age of four (and even for some adults!), but I do understand your desire to allow your son the opportunity to be around other children his own age. (I don’t know if you have a park nearby, but spending some time there on a daily basis can provide a wonderful chance for him to explore physically and interact with other children his age in a relaxed, informal way.)

I want to reassure you that you are doing well by your son by waiting patiently for him to be ready to try and accomplish things on his own, in his own time, and his own way.There is no need to “force” him to explore, as babies and toddlers always do exactly what they’re ready for. I know it can be hard not to question yourself when you see others doing things so differently. I want to encourage you to continue to listen to and respect your son’s pace, and to continue to follow your own instincts.

You don’t mention how old your son is, but there is a wide range of “normal” when it comes to achieving physical milestones. I would not nudge him at all, but allow him to enjoy the class completely on his own terms; to explore and interact as he wants to and is ready to. My guess is that he is following his own unique inner pace and dictates, not because something is wrong, but because you have raised him in a respectful, accepting atmosphere that encourages, allows, supports, and celebrates his authentic being! (Of course, if you have concerns about a significant developmental delay, I encourage you to check with your pediatrician.)

I want to share with you a post Suchada of Mama Eve Natural Parenting wrote about an eye-opening experience she had with her young son at the playground , because it speaks so beautifully to your question. I hope these thoughts will help you to feel confident in allowing your son to take his time to find his own way up the slide when he’s ready!  Suchada says in part:

“It was so hard to resist the temptation to help him…..

But if I had, I would have missed the opportunity to see what he could do. I would have missed an opportunity to let him discover his own capabilities. I would have missed an opportunity to show him I trust him to figure out the things that are important to him, in his life, in his moment.”

Please let me know how things are going. I’d love to hear from you again.

Warmly, Lisa


Dear Lisa,

I appreciate your reply, and figured you were probably very busy, as it is a hectic time of year. I appreciate the added reassurance from you. My son is 14 months old. He is definitely not delayed, just more laid back; he seems to prefer to sit back and take in all the action. It just gets trying to see all the other parents parenting in a way that is so drastically different from my own. We do have a local park that we sometimes visit. I’ve been thinking of going a bit more often and discontinuing our Gymboree classes, as I feel they’re overstimulating and too structured. You certainly have my permission to respond to my email via blog post, or republish it in any way. I enjoy reading your blogs and  facebook posts and find the information very informative and reassuring. Hope you have an enjoyable holiday season and a healthy, happy New Year to come!

Sincerely, Sheryl


Dear Sheryl,

I’m also wishing you a happy, healthy New Year, and continued joy in following your son’s lead and discovering who he is as he grows and learns! I’m wondering if you might be able to find one or two like minded Moms who have babies about the same age as your son, at the park, and then maybe you can you can get together every once in a while. It may help you to feel less alone, which is just as important as creating opportunities for your son to play and socialize at his own pace. Janet Lansbury offers five great tips for forming a safe and fun informal play group, when there aren’t any to be found nearby that feel comfortable for both you and your child. Finally, I leave you with this thought from Magda Gerber:

“It can be difficult to step back and let your child take the lead, but in this way you will observe and learn from him. You will discover with delight that your child has many inherent abilities that might have been missed if he had not been allowed to explore in his own way.”

As you seem to have discovered, there’s treasure to be found for both you and your son in sharing what Magda called “wants nothing” time together! Enjoy!

Warmly, Lisa


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Juliette January 2, 2012

I’d love to hear a bit more about visiting parks with a pre-walking (but crawling/cruising) baby even though I suspect our son will be walking by the time the weather is good enough. In the autumn, I found I spent my whole time trying to stop him eating leaves, though maybe I should have relaxed more about that!

Lisa January 2, 2012

Hi Juliette,

Generally, when I’ve visited parks with pre-walking babies (and I’ve visited many, with many babies, over the years!), they enjoy a stroller ride to the park, and then I set them free as soon as we arrive! I was one of the only nannies at the park we used to go to in Cambridge, MA, who didn’t leave the baby in the stroller and feed them crackers, while I sat on a bench and chatted on the phone, which is sad to me, but it is true.

Some parks have grassy shaded areas, and you can bring a large blanket to define a play area, and just add some simple toys like balls, and toy cars. (Books and bubbles are also nice!) I always take balls, and a few sand toys, to share in the sand box.

Many parks these days have separate play areas with equipment sized for children under two or three years of age, but even if they don’t, I let little ones (even the pre-walkers) explore at their own pace. A lot of times they just enjoy watching other children play, or cruising around the benches.

My policy is to never, ever lift a child unto a piece of equipment they can’t get up onto themselves, but I don’t stop them from trying. I was at the park a few months ago with a friend whose granddaughter had just turned a year old. The baby wasn’t walking yet, but was climbing everywhere. K. climbed up the slide, and then just kept going, exploring other parts of the structure. My friend looked at me when she started her climb up the slide and said “Now what? Should I help her? Should I stop her?” I said “No, just let her go, but stay close.” My friend chose to follow her, because it was the first time the baby was exploring this structure, it was a big structure, and there were a lot of other children using the equipment, all of who happened to look like giants compared to this petite little dynamo who was determined to scale a slide that looked like the size of Mount Rushmore compared to her!

My general approach is to just stay close, observe, narrate, and intervene only for safety. So if the baby has picked up a leaf for instance, I say, “Oh you found a leaf.” But I wait to see what he’s going to do with it before saying much more. If the leaf is on its way to the baby’s mouth, I might say, “Oh, it looks like you want to taste that leaf, but I don’t want you to put that in your mouth. It’s not good to eat.” The leaf eating and sand tasting don’t worry me as much as when older children are running around wildly, playing chase, but again, staying close by and narrating seems to provide a safe “bubble” of space around the pre-walker that other children respect.

Does this help to answer your question? Maybe others will chime in and share their experiences here too.

Juliette January 3, 2012

Thank you Lisa – yes, that is really helpful. Some of that I was doing already although we hadn’t actually tried any actual playgrounds – I may have to do some searching around for one that’s suitable. I was wondering about what happens about older children, so I’m glad you mentioned that. It’s making me wish for the spring or even just that it’d just stop raining!

Jessica January 2, 2012

This is for Sheryl! My sons are all grown, 37 and 34. My oldest son was always in the middle of things. He had some sort of science experiment going on somewhere in the house. He would try things out, fail over and over again, figure out another way. My youngest son was just the opposite which worried me, at first. I still can touch that feeling. It was how each learned to swim that taught me the most. My oldest played and messed around in the water. No fear! He learned to swim at a very young age. My youngest was hesitant of the water. (I should mention that I am a fish disguised as a human! ) My youngest learned to swim on his own time line.
Here is the lesson that my youngest taught me and it is exactly what Lisa speaks about so eloquently. He was and is a keen observer. When he decided to try to swim, as in this case, he would pretty much be successful with a few minor adjustments. It is the process not the product.
Stories are so helpful. Both of my sons are successful young men and both have these same temperaments today. I finally learned to step back and observe. Trusting both of them was key for me. I haven’t even mentioned respect!
Enjoy the moment. Live in the moment.
Hugs from the low country of South Carolina.

Lisa January 2, 2012


Thank you for sharing your thoughts here! I think it’s always so wonderful and so helpful when parents can hear from other parents who have been where they are, and have come through to the other side, able to share observations and wisdom that comes with time and experience!

Elly January 2, 2012

I did ‘gym’ classes at our local Y with my son. It was unstructured (apart from a circle/song time) and the kids just played. It was like being at an indoor park but the stuff was more age appropriate size for non walkers, or early walkers. He enjoyed playing with other kids and I got to socialize, so it seemed like we both won.

It might be worth looking around for a different type of activity. (I didnt ever do gymboree so i can’t compare). Even at nearly 4 my son does not respond at all well to structured classes so I just don’t bother.

Elanne Kresser January 2, 2012

Thanks for this wonderful post. It’s amazing how hard it can be to trust our babies in the current environment of “parenting norms.” I recently stopped attending a mama’s group that I had been going to since my daughter was born because many of the other moms push their babies – propping them into sitting when they clearly can’t support themselves, lots of tummy time, trying to show them how to roll over and even crawl, standing them up using their hands etc. Meanwhile I’d have my little girl lying on her back while she made sounds, explored her fingers and toes, and rolled side to side. It started to feel like too much of a disconnect for me so I stopped going.

Needless to say the other babies were reaching their milestones sooner. But as someone with a background in movement and dance I could see that much of the movement was disorganized, not the beautiful movement that occurs when babies do things organically.

What has been most interesting to me though has been to watch my own feelings. As my daughter reached five months old and still hadn’t rolled over I started to worry. Everyone talks about five months as the time when they start to do this. And so many of the babies around me were already doing it before five months. I could feel my own anxiety building – even though in the past in my work with other parents and their babies I have been a firm advocate of trusting each babies unique timeline, I was having such a hard time trusting my own baby now.

About a week and a half after reaching five months my little girl did roll over from her back to her front. It was such an exciting moment to see her do this on her own and to see her great surprise. She had a hard time getting back to her back and eventually got distressed so I helped her get back to her back. She immediately rolled onto her tummy again! This was a few days ago, and since then she has only rolled to her tummy once. This is another thing to remember. Children can learn something new and then not do it again for awhile. Motor skills are not acquired in a linear fashion.

I’m so grateful to you Lisa, and to Janet Lansbury for the constant reminder and support to trust our little ones, to observe, and to stay out of their way. It really helps me to stay the course in a sea of actions and advice that are so contrary to this.

Louise Bale January 3, 2012

I hear your thoughts about your child. My son always achieves everything a little bit “later” than the books told me he would. But he has always been on his own timeline, and now I can relax and watch rather than worry as those developmental milestones happen…on his timeline. He is a 22 month old boy who is creative and funny and joy-filled. There is nothing wrong or delayed about him. He has been ‘contemplating’ going down a slide by himself for the past year. I never forced the issue or compared him to his peers who whizzed down the slides continuously. He even has a little slide in his own backyard, which gave him ample ‘contemplation’ time. Last month, when he thought no one was watching, he climbed up his slide and went down. By himself. And then repeated it, over and over. It was so great to watch it all unfold as I stood observing by the kitchen window. I took him to a music/singing playgroup, but he observed from afar and was clearly overwhelmed by the stimulation of it all. He gained more pleasure playing with chairs on the perimeter of the room. That was my clue to give him his space. Sure, I was sometimes self conscious that my child was the only one not participating. The only child who didn’t want to bounce, jump, clap and sing on cue. But it taught me that it’s not about me, or a reflection on my parenting. It’s about him. His timeline. His process. His right as a human being to have his own space in this world. His demand for respect.

kim January 3, 2012

I didn’t find RIE until my twins were 3 years old. I took them to Gymboree class when they were 15 months. We lived in a cold climate and frankly it gave us all an activity and a chance to get out and mingle. I cringe at some of the things I “forced”. When my kids took a toy, I made them give it back thinking that was the right thing to do. I wish I could go back with my knowledge of observation. That being said, I don’t regret taking them! I remember the joy on my sons face seeing all the colored balls and it brought tears to my eyes! My daughter loved the music portion. All in all, I think we all got something out of it.

Suchada @ Mama Eve January 5, 2012


I just got a chance to read this. Thank you so much for including my post. As always it’s an honor to have your reference something of mine, especially on a topic you’ve taught me so much about.

I pushed my older son so much to do things because that’s what my mother told me to do, but I allowed my younger son to develop on his own (they reached their milestones at about the same time), and it gave me so much joy. Stepping back and trusting does so much for our relationships, and I’m so glad I know better now.

Jennifer February 14, 2012

I just found this article and I am so relieved to read it. I signed up for Gymboree classes but have taken him only a few times. He is 14 mos old and not yet walking although he has been “surfing” since he was 9 mos old. He has definitely made progress albeit at a very slow pace. I have felt guilty for not taking him more often but I do think it can be overstimulating (for both of us) and also, I find myself anxiously looking around and worrying about whether or not he’s keeping up with the other kids his age.
So relieved to know I’m not the only one.

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