For one reason or another, many of the playgroups that we've been a part of in the past year are dissolving, and I've been scrambling to cobble together a new program for Julia for the summer. Some of the reasons for the transition are connected to her age and the ages of her playmates. Some of it's the ebb and flow of my own friendships. Mostly, she's growing out of certain groups and activities, so much faster than I thought possible. And now she's "ready," or at least, almost old enough for new kinds of experiences: ballet classes, tot soccer, swim lessons, gymnastics. My head is spinning. There are so many options, and it's difficult to know where to begin.
No longer is it enough to just give her a room filled with bright plastic toys, some books and some playdough. At the same time, there's a tendency in this community to overprogram your kids, to obsess about how to best manufacture their experiences so that they'll be as well-rounded as they can be, before they've even entered kindergarten. I don't want her to burn out by age five, but I also want her to have all of the advantages I can give her.
So, how to find the balance?
When I was three, I was in a home-based day care all day long, the same day care I'd been in since I was nine months old. I don't remember much about being three, but I do remember my caregiver's house, a few of my friends, and some of the things we did there. She had a huge yard and plenty of toys, and at least six other kids for me to play with. While I didn't ever go to preschool or do any kind of enrichment activities until I was in grade school, I had a good imagination, a few consistent playmates, and the freedom to roam, which more than prepared me for school, academically, at any rate.
That said, I didn't learn a lot of basic "kid" skills until I was well into childhood and approaching adolescence, that is to say, too late. I didn't learn how to swim, skate, or ride a bike until I was eight or nine. I could never do a proper cartwheel. I never learned to dive properly, and embarrassed myself by having to jump feet first into the water at competitive swim meets at eleven years of age. I amassed quite a collection of brown and orange fifth and sixth place ribbons that summer. I still can't stand up and pedal on a bike; I can hardly move one hand off the handlebars to shift gears on a ten speed. I continue to be allergic to most organized sports and games. While I taught myself to stay upright on ice skates, I could never go backward or spin in a circle. Though I had an ear for music from very early on, I never learned to play an instrument, and picked up the guitar for the first time well into my twenties. I never went to summer camp or did camping of any kind with my family, so nature and I were estranged for most of my life.
This is not to say I had a lousy childhood; I was loved, I was fed and clothed, educated, entertained and kept safe. One thing I had was plenty of downtime after school and on weekends; time to wander around my neighborhood, play in my backyard, read, write, watch TV. Without camp, lazy summer days lasted forever, and my free time was my own to fill. I can safely say stress was foreign to me until I hit puberty. Trouble is, I think I missed something crucial having so little structure to my childhood. I had no instruments to practice, no badges to earn, no big games, no rehearsals. If I'd asked to do any of these things, I'm sure my parents would have let me, but how can you decide whether or not you'll be good at something if no one shows you the extent of your options? I became increasingly afraid to try new things, convinced myself I wasn't good at so much. By middle school, I'd gotten into performing arts and academics and away from athletics. I found friends who shared my interests, but my direction had as much to do with my natural talents as my childhood gaps.
It's always a danger to base parenting decisions on what you perceive as the gaps in your own childhood, because it's easy to create new gaps based on your own biases. It's also dangerous to pay too much attention to what other people are doing, because what's doable for one family/child isn't always doable for another. I have to wonder, too, how much of the attention I'm giving to this has to do with the fact that in a few weeks, I won't be able to give her as much of myself. I want to carve out as much time for her in advance as I possibly can. And I've always found it helpful to put too much worry and planning into something than risk not doing enough.
I think, at the end of the day, I have to fall back on my progressive ed training and ask myself, what is she interested in? She won't stop doing somersaults all over the house, so I've signed her up for a gymnastics class. She's a natural water kid and always has been; so swim lessons are a no-brainer. Beyond that, I have to trust that fresh air and sunshine and a new baby brother will keep her happy and stimulated. In a few months, she'll start preschool, and more doors will open for her.
The bottom line is, I don't want Julia to have to shy away from experiences as she gets older because she lacked exposure to certain things at a young age. I want her to have the chance to master some basic skills so that she's confident and brave enough to tackle related challenges as she grows. I don't want to go crazy and overwhelm her or take away her ability to fill her own time. I don't want windows to close on her. I know she won't be good at everything, but I just want to give her the chance.