It has taken you hours to get organised and here – and now your child won’t get down off your lap and participate!

Parents invest time and money enrolling their toddlers and pre-schoolers in organised, educational groups and classes. Playgroups, music groups, sensory play, story-time – millennial children have opportunities to fill every day and more. But what can you do if your little one resists engagement and prefers to watch?

Well, firstly, it’s okay by the facilitator and other adults! Relax – it’s not just you or your child. It is very typical for small children to stay close to their caregiver in any new situation and especially so during the multiple periods of separation anxiety of the first couple of years. Early childhood educators are trained to expect this and should not want you to push your toddler or older child to participate. As for other parents or grandparents, they have likely been in the same situation here or in another activity and they are on your side!

Commonly, it takes a few sessions for children to feel at home in a new space, with new people, new sights and sounds. Anxiety is a normal response and staying close to a trusted adult is a typical response. Allow your child time to become familiar with the space and reassure them verbally and physically.

There are other things you can do to help your child feel more comfortable:

  • Arrive early if you can. Walking into an activity which has already started is stressful for anyone. By arriving early, your child has time to meet the facilitator or teacher, see the space before many adults and children arrive and experience the space before additional sounds and other stimuli are added.
  • 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”. Gentle observations, with no expectation of 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.
  • Participate yourself. 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: 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. Observation IS participation, just in a very subtle form.
  • 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 will 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 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 own garden. Borrow books from the library that have been featured in story-time. Get out some blocks. Water your own 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!
  • If you find your child is still resisting participation a few weeks into term, then consider other factors: is it too close to nap time for your child? Are they hungry? Is the space to 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 is 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 stimulus.
  • Take a break for a term and try again. If your toddler is experiencing high separation anxiety right now; getting two-year-old molars; recovering from illness; a new house or sibling or other big changes – it might be case of leave it for now and start 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 are 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 are having fun, then they will start to as well. And before you know it, you will both be eager to get to class and take part in all the fun!