Structured play for a toddler? HELP!

I need advice from other moms or people who know more about child development than I do. Should a toddler (Ryan is 2o months) have structured play and be expected to listen and follow directions? Or should he be free to explore and do as he pleases?

Here’s the deal…

We’re taking a parent-tot tumbling class at the local gymnastics academy. We went to our first session this past Friday and it goes all the way through December. The class has about 6 kids I think and they’re all around Ryan’s age. One I know is also 20 months, another is 23 months…

The class is 50 minutes long and about the last 20 minutes of the class is used for free-time. But… the first 30 minutes? Structured play. When I signed up for the class, I knew Ryan wouldn’t do too well with the structured play, but I figured the class would be full of kids his age that also wanted to wander and not stay where they were supposed to. I thought it’d be pretty laid back.

We started on beams. The instructor set up 6 different stations that we rotated through… some things that Ryan could do: walking across the beam and jumping off at the end, walking sideways down the beam (as long as I led the way)… lots of things Ryan couldn’t do: crawl down the beam like a cat, jump over marks on the beam, etc.

This gym is pretty big with tons of toys and about 50 yards away from us was a castle playhouse–Ryan was in love. Multiple times he ran from the beams to the castle and did not want to leave. The instructor kept coming over and telling Ryan he had to come back to the group. I asked Ryan to come, I told Ryan to come. He would not come. I picked him up and carried him back to the group. He responded by screaming and arching his back, nearly falling out of my arms. Tantrum time. Like I said, this happened probably 3 times during the 10 minutes we were at the beams.

The next set of stations actually included the castle and the instructor let Ryan start there because she knew he loved it. I thought “bad idea!” because I knew I’d never get him to leave! When it was time to rotate, Ryan flipped out again and by the time I got him to calm down at the next station, it was time to rotate again.

Every other kid? Juuuuust fine and dandy. Not a single one cared about rotating from station to station, leaving fun things behind for the next one, listening to their moms and following instructions.

WHY can’t my kid handle it? I was embarrassed, I was stressed, and we did not have fun. Well, Ryan had plenty of fun during free time. He spent the entire 20 minutes of it in the castle.

So…. opinions? How do I work on this? Is it because he’s a spoiled little boy at home that gets to do whatever he wants (within reason, I mean)?Is it normal for his age? I know I shouldn’t compare to other kids, but… if it’s normal for his age, why were none of the other kids acting that way? What do we do? I need to read some parenting books, lol.

Also – if this helps – Ryan only acts this way with me. If he’s with his dad or with his grandparents, he’s an angel. He’s quiet, he listens, he doesn’t throw tantrums (unless he’s tired or something.. you know). But with his mama? AHH. I want to test this out by having my mom take him to this tumbling class one week and see how he does.

10 comments to Structured play for a toddler? HELP!

  • Heather

    IMO it’s an age thing, he does need to learn to follow structure, but 20mo. is the early end of the range and it has a lot to do with his personality. Maybe finding a play group or a mom’s group w/ childcare would let him have the peer interaction without the struggle on staying on task for right now and help you relax and meet new peoplw instead of worrying about him 🙂


  • I say skip the classes. Little ones need (not just “want”, but “NEED”) to explore. Attempting to get them to focus on one thing when there’s something so much more interesting right there is impossible. I guess my best advice is to check out a book called “How Children Learn” by John Caldwell Holt. It’ll help you understand how little ones’ minds work. It’s a VERY easy read and not filled with a bunch of technical junk and studies. Just a guy’s observations of little ones and his conclusions – all told in little stories.

    And I have the same problem with my little guy – he acts like that with me. I think it’s because they’re so comfortable and trusting with us that they know they can safely act out. We’ll still love them, we won’t hurt them. Not that that helps us while they’re causing the biggest scene in history… but helps us understand and try to be a little more accepting!


    babydickey Reply:

    Thank you! I will definitely check out the book. Part of the reason I signed up for the class is because Ryan doesn’t get any interaction with other kids. He’s not in daycare, I don’t really have friends with kids – which means Ryan doesn’t really have any friends… so he’s lacking social skills, I think. I thought this class would be a good chance to interact with kids and for both of us to meet new people. So, in that sense, I think we’ll stick with the class… but I’ll try to be more laid back and relaxed about him going to explore. I was getting all worried about him “following instructions” but I guess I shouldn’t be. Thank you!


    Alicia C. Reply:

    I have found that heading to the park or library (not during story time) has been the best for us. It takes a lot of self-control, but try to just let him explore and interact with other children on his own while you sit a little bit away. I used to worry about my little guy falling or not being “nice” to other kids, but they have a way of working out those things on their own. I only get involved if there is hitting or pushing. Taking toys away or not waiting for their turn will be resolved by other kids quickly – many won’t stand for it! And if they allow other kids to take advantage of them, they’ll get the idea to stand up for themselves sooner or later. Sounds kind of mean and uncaring, but your little guy will come find you if he needs help!


  • Della

    His behavior sounds pretty normal to me. Kids develop and react differently in different environments. I have two who are as different as can be but I haven’t done much differently. At that age, I preferred going to Kindermusic classes as opposed to Gymboree music classes because in Kindermusic they were encouraged to wander and explore while Gymboree was more of a structured sit and participate.

    Gymnastics will still be there in a year or two.


  • Jessica

    Totally normal! We did a few sessions at gymnastics in the 15m-2yrs class. The instructor was awesome! An hour class. There was a circle of things to do, sang songs & games, and free time. But she said anytime the kids really want to do something else that the groups not doing that’s ok! Can’t expect toddlers to do exactly what you want. Especially with the big trampoline right there lol!


  • I agree with everyone he probably isn’t ready but if you’re noticing that he acts up that way only with you then you might want to be a little more firm with him. He’s old enough to understand boundaries.


    Shannon W Reply:

    I agree with this completely. Babies are smarter than a lot of people give them credit. By the time my daughter was crawling she learned very fast that the kitchen is off limits.


    babydickey Reply:

    I am firm with him, but that doesn’t stop him from throwing a fit when he doesn’t get what he wants. That doesn’t stop me from setting the boundaries–I just wish it didn’t result in this behavior. He knows exactly how far he can go down the driveway, not to touch certain things, etc.


  • Beth

    Around this age I think kids are building self-esteem and independence (and Ryan is ONE INDEPENDENT & self assured little boy!!!) I think part of his “wandering” and wanting to do what HE wants to do is just one more characteristic that shows he is strong-willed and I believe…intelligent. 🙂 I don’t think there should be such control over what he does at the class. Teacher should be very understanding and should know that all kids are NOT the same!!!


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