It’s totally natural to feel a little dejected if your children aren’t participating in activities, whether they’re attending childcare, a music making pop up, or any early learning setting.
You invest time and money enrolling your toddlers and preschoolers in organised educational groups and classes.
Playgroups, music groups, sensory play, storytime—millennial children have opportunities to fill every day and more.
But what can you do if your little ankle-biter resists engagement and prefers to watch?
How to respond if a child doesn’t want to participate
Well, firstly, not jumping straight in is perfectly fine by the facilitator and other adults. It’s no drama-llama-ding-dong to us at all!
So relax – it’s not just you or your child. Nobody is judging you, pinky swear.
It’s typical for small children to stay close to their caregiver in any new situation—and especially so during the multiple periods of separation anxiety in the first couple of years.
Early childhood educators are trained to expect this and shouldn’t want you to push your toddler or older child to participate.
As for other parents or grandparents, they’ve likely been in your shoes here and are on your side!
Commonly, it takes a few sessions for children to feel at home in a new space, where their brains will be stimulated with a bazillion new things—new people, new sights, and new sounds.
Anxiety is a normal response and staying close to a trusted adult is totally natural. Give your child time to become familiar with the space and reassure them verbally and physically.
But if you feel like you need a little more guidance, there are other things you can do to help your child feel more comfortable…
How to encourage your child to participate in an activity—without pressure
Arrive early if you can
Walking into an activity that has already started is stressful for anyone. By arriving at the childcare, early learning centre, or music session early, your child has time to meet the facilitator or teacher.
They can see the space before many adults and children arrive and experience the surroundings before additional sounds and other stimuli are added.
Provide gentle observations
Guided by the leader, find a spot where you can observe others arriving and talk to your child about what they are seeing:
“Here comes a child with a blue shirt like yours.”
“That child is sitting on a cushion like we are.”
“That person has a baby like your sister.”
These are gentle observations with no expectation of (or need for) response from your child.
If they point to something or make a comment, reflect that observation back to them: “Yes! That child has a teddy too.”
If they comment on sights or sounds in the space, acknowledge these too: “Yes, the music is playing. It is louder.”
“The children are running around. We are sitting down.”
Allow time to just observe.
Join in too!
It doesn’t have to be full-on. Participating yourself might look like this:
- Gently sing the welcome song while your child sits on your lap.
- Take part in an activity holding your child on your hip or secure in a baby carrier.
- Talk to your child about what you are doing, what the teacher is doing, what other families are doing.
Allow your child the space to begin participating in any way they wish.
This might be gently bouncing on your lap instead of skipping around in the circle.
It might be quietly making the animal sounds while everyone else acts them out more vigorously.
Watch for subtle signs your child is engaged
Observation IS participation, just in a very subtle form. It might look like:
- A tapping foot when the music plays.
- Rhythmic movement when others beat the drum.
- Looking in the direction the teacher has indicated the children move to.
Encourage engagement with small parts of the session that seem less overwhelming.
If everyone is digging for bugs, sit with your child away from the main group and do a little digging yourselves.
Watch the parachute go up and down while other children run under it and encourage your child to help you hold the edge.
If everyone is painting rainbows, offer a pre-loaded paintbrush with just one colour and focus on that.
Remember: process, not product is most important.
There’ll be plenty of make-and-take activities to put on the fridge one day. For now, focus on gentle experiences.
Follow up at home!
This is my favourite way to engage reluctant children. Reproduce some of the activities in the security of the home:
- Sing the songs from class: Ask the teacher or Google for the lyrics.
- Improvise instruments that replicate those used or invest in a couple of inexpensive items like egg shakers or bells.
- Find some scarves in your wardrobe or op shop.
- Go digging for bugs in your garden.
- Borrow books from the library that have been featured in storytime.
- Get out some blocks.
- Water your garden.
- Do some simple messy play—outside makes it less stressful for you!
Use the sessions you attend as inspiration for play at home.
Rather than thinking your child should be learning, consider the classes as lessons for you in playing with your child!
Tip! If you’ve attended one of our music-making sessions, you can even invest in our Patreon membership so your child can grow used to our songs and movements in the comfort of their home.
But what if your child is still resisting participation?
If, after a few weeks into term, you find your child still resists participation, consider other factors:
- Is it too close to nap time for your child?
- Are they hungry?
- Is the space too big or too small for them to feel comfortable?
- Would an indoor activity—or an outdoor one!—suit them better?
- Are they more interested in building cubbies with sticks than towers with blocks? Dancing than singing? Art more than gymnastics?
Sometimes it’s the case of the right activity at the wrong time or the wrong activity at the right time! So ask about different session times or explore alternative activities. Smaller groups. Quieter spaces. Different sensory stimuli.
Maybe you want to take a break for a term and try again. A lot of external things might make waiting till another time a better choice.
Your toddler could be experiencing high separation anxiety right now, or getting two-year-old molars, or recovering from an illness, or moving to a new house, or welcoming a new sibling into the home…
Big changes could signal that it might be a case of leaving it for now and starting over next term.
Ask around if friends or family might take over your place in class or ask the teacher if there are families on a waiting list who might love your space! It’s okay to revise and revisit activities.
Remember the activity is for the child.
If it isn’t working, then they’re not enjoying it or learning.
At the end of the day…
Formal activities are additional to unstructured play at home. Classes and groups are as much about social connection for parents as they are learning opportunities for toddlers.
They should be things you WANT to do, not something you feel you MUST do.
Choose activities you feel comfortable engaging in—your child will pick up on your responses and if you’re having fun, they’ll start to as well.
And before you know it, you’ll both be eager to get to class and take part in all the fun!