a last minute (or great for any occasion) gift idea

I admit it. We’re still doing some last minute Christmas shopping. So when Heather van Mil, the General Manager and Lead Teacher of Gymboree Play & Music of Vancouver & the North Shore, touched base about classes being a great holiday gift we grilled her for more info as we love gifts of experiences and wanted to be able to sell our extended family on them too:

This is my daughter’s second Christmas and while she is definitely older, I’m hoping that I am wiser. Last year we were overwhelmed by the toys and clothes that she received from loving grandparents, aunts and cousins. We were scratching our heads a bit wondering what to do with all these wonderful gifts, while my daughter played happily in the corner with an empty box. This year we have found a perfect solution to our already bursting shelves and closets; a gift she can’t get anywhere else – classes!

Why are gifts of experiences, such as classes, great for kids?

There are many great educational toys out there, but none of them can offer your child true friendship or encourage their social development. Especially for only children, or situations where extended family is far away, classes offer not only physical, cognitive and perhaps other specific skill development, but will foster their social skills as well. Many families we see build lifetime family friendships with others through the classes they attend. When you also factor in the rainy, cold weather we experience around Christmas time, it’s as much a present for mom and dad to get out of the house and expend some energy as it is for the child. Best of all, you don’t need to worry about where to store it.

If you want to get your little one – or want to suggest the grandparents do – a gift of a class for the holidays what should they look for?

You want to find a class with a small age range (around 6 months age gap per class is typically appropriate) so the children that are all working on the same skills as your child. Some are a little more advanced to encourage her, and some are still learning things she has already mastered which gives her a great feeling of accomplishment. Finding the best fit for your child is the most important consideration when deciding where to spend your hard earned dollars, so look for a place that will offer you a trial class prior to registration so you know its right for you both. You will also want to look for somewhere that offers great flexibility within their registration. Children’s schedules change so often with nap times and illnesses that you don’t want to invest in something that you might end up losing out on. Lastly consider the perks that many companies offer in addition to the class to get the most out of your registration.

What sort of classes would you recommend for kids who haven’t displayed an interest or aptitude for anything in particular. If a girl is mildly interested in dance should you pop her right into ballet or something more general?

Each child is geared so differently that it is impossible to give a blanket answer to that question. This is another great reason to find a program that allows a trial class prior to registration. You’ll be able to figure out very quickly if something is appropriate for your child or not. Additionally, many programs offer low cost drop in times that are unstructured versions of their regular classes. Try a few weeks of a drop in program to gauge your child’s interest in that type of class and go from there. If drop in times aren’t an option, then look for a program that doesn’t require a large up-front cost or a long contractual commitment. Sign up for one month of classes to see if your child enjoys and benefits from the chosen program. Remember that children learn through play, so above all they should be having fun.

Do kids need classes or can they just have lots of time for unstructured play/running around?

Children learn in a variety of different ways, and need a variety of learning opportunities to develop. Unstructured play is very important for children to learn how to self direct and motivate, collaborate with other children, and ultimately express their unfettered creativity, however that is not the only way they learn. While the amount of structure that is appropriate is different for each child at each age, some structure is important to introduce your child to new concepts and ideas, helps them learn how to focus on specific skills, how to share and other self discipline skills, among other things. An ideal program for a child of any age strikes a balance between organized activities and free play within each class. It would also complement and respect all learning styles from the outgoing child who learns by doing to the reserved, watchful learner.

Heather van Mil is the General Manager and Lead Teacher of Gymboree Play & Music of Vancouver & the North Shore. Initially trained as a Montessori Teacher in Ontario with a musical background rooted in the Royal Conservatory of Music, Heather has been working with young children and music for most of her life. Looking for a career change upon her move to Vancouver six years ago, she found the perfect combination of her passions with Gymboree, inspiring and teaching parents how to learn from and lead their children to develop their physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills in an fun and safe environment! She marvels at how her marriagefour years ago and the arrival of her first daughter two years ago have translated into a deeper understanding of and connection with the families and teachers she works with. “It really brings home the importance of what we do in class each day. I’ve done it with my daughter and I’ve seen it work in her development. That’s exciting!”

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