Toddler Learning – Focus Or Freedom?

Hi Janet,

Still avidly reading your blog and just read your listening article. I  have a question: I started taking my daughter (28 months) to a gym class at a local community center (can’t afford the fancy kid gym classes), and I’m interested in your thoughts regarding her behavior and how best to deal with it.

My daughter in general is a fearless, fun little girl with tons of energy, so I figured the classes would be a great way to get that energy out.  It is a community setting with toys, books and other fun things to explore so it’s hard sometimes to get her to focus on the actual class. Most of the time, she likes to just run around and do her own thing. So far, at the start of the class I guide her to get her involved by doing the tasks with her, and then after a while I let her do what she wants. I make sure she is respectful of the class and at times try to re-engage her with what is happening in the class – that’s why we are there.

My question is…should I be focusing on helping her listen to direction and focusing on the class, or should I let her just do what she wants, as long as it’s not destructive to the class and her surroundings?  I think she is on that edge of learning and that, with my respectful guidance, I might help her to just focus on the class and task at hand. At the same time, though, I want her to have the freedom to get what she wants from the class on her own terms. Example, this morning: “I see you are interested in this toy but we are here to play on the mats. Want to come and see if you can play on the mat?” Most of the time she says yes, plays for a bit, then runs off. In the back of my mind I wonder, did I just manipulate her?

My instincts say we have a good balance, but which is more important — focus or freedom? What would be best for her at this age?

Thank you for any guidance and thoughts,

Hi Natalia,

“What is more important – focus or freedom?”  Hmmm… Thank you for this interesting question.

Both are important, but in this case, focus and freedom aren’t an either/or option… In fact, it is through the freedom to play as she wishes that your daughter will develop strong focus and listening abilities.

Your daughter will focus for much longer periods with activities she chooses, rather than those chosen for her in an adult directed class.

She will learn to listen more intently because she wants to (while you are reading her a favorite book, answering her questions, commenting on what she is choosing to do while she plays, for example), than she will when you are trying to engage her in an activity chosen by you or others (even though your approach sounds very respectful).

She is also likely to be a better listener if you limit the amount of times you ask her to listen. Save your “listening” requests for necessities, like giving her behavior boundaries, or enlisting her cooperation during diaper changes, dressing, bathing, mealtimes, etc.

If your daughter has the option of learning through play her way in the gym class setting, by all means allow her to do that. If not, I would question the benefit of the class at this age, which brings up a broader issue…

Do toddlers gain from adult-led learning and instruction? In my opinion (shared by most early childhood educators), the possible negatives to early instruction, even when it is as innocuous as a gym class, outweigh the benefits. Classes and lessons for infants and toddlers can discourage…

Autonomy and Self-Confidence

In the words of David Elkind (from his book Miseducation – Preschoolers At Risk), “Programs designed to teach three and four year olds to ski, play tennis, do karate, and engage in gymnastics miseducate young children… Very young children subjected to such instruction are in danger of learning to be overly dependent upon adults for guidance and direction. Their budding sense of autonomy is thus put at risk for no purpose. This danger is avoided, and the skills can be learned more effectively and efficiently, when they are taught at a later, more appropriate age.”


Enrolling a toddler who loves to dance at home in a dance class, for example, encourages her to move like everyone else. Once she learns the “right” way to dance, she is far more inclined to imitate, less likely to enjoy dancing her way.


Honestly, trying to coax a 2 year old to follow instructions when she is eager to explore her true interests sounds very tiring to me, besides being not worth the trouble (or money). I’d rather save my frustration for the activities that I have to insist on… like brushing teeth or going to bed.

However, there are a couple of BIG positives to classes… Classes give us something to do with our children in community with others. For that reason alone, joining a class makes total sense.  Also, there are usually fun toys, materials and equipment you probably don’t have at home.

So, if your daughter is allowed to participate on her terms and use the facility the way she wishes (safely), it will be a productive class for her.

The key is not to “get” a child to focus, but rather to recognize her natural ability to focus on what interests her, allow and encourage it.

Children have so many years of instruction ahead of them from Kindergarten onwards… Trusting your daughter to be an inner-directed, independent and active learner in these first years is one of the best gifts you can give her.

Please let me know what you think. And thank you for reading the blog!

Warmly,                                                                                                                                                                                                        Janet

I share more about encouraging focus and listening skills in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Janet,

    I love your responses to this question. As always, you’ve explained these, what can seem, subtle concepts in such a clear and accessible way. What it brings forward to me is something I believe in so strongly that whenever our focus is on “helping our child be more …. ” our child is more in need of us supporting them to be …. in a way that’s more natural for them.

    Here in New Zealand, we’re very lucky to have a parent run organization called Playcentre which encourages child led play. It’s a place where parents and children can be together and build connections and community together while meeting young children’s needs for free play. Many parents end bring their children to classes for the play and social opportunities for child and parent, but need to go along with the agenda of the group which often pulls against the needs of the child’s need to follow their natural curiousity and huge urge to constantly explore and play.

    I have to share this on my page.

    I feel inspired and enriched by your wisdom and experience Janet, keep shining your light 🙂


    1. I love the idea of “supporting them to be”.

      1. Me, too!!! And thank you also for your wonderful words of encouragement, Genevieve! Yes, our children need assurance through our words and actions that they are enough. It’s difficult for children to develop self-confidence without that basic trust.

  2. Yes, to everything Janet said, and yes, it is a good question. Don’t forget Janet’s first answer: It’s a choice. We all live in the tension of learning by doing and learning by listening. There’s a time to move and do, and a time to sit and listen. It is a judgment call. (And generally preschoolers should be learning by doing.)

  3. What a great question and response! This is so common at the play gym we go to with all of the moms, it seems, who are forever trying to coax their kids to do each activity of the class. I, too, go back and forth between trying to engage him in the class activities (because I think he will enjoy them) and just letting him run around and do what he likes. Our gym has the same ending sequence each day which my son really likes, most of the time. If I do nothing, he very often comes to sit down even before the teacher prompts them and follows the directions for each activity. He is very focused because he enjoys the activity. If he is not into it one day, though, no amount of coaxing on my part will get that same level of focus!

  4. Thank you Janet so much for responding and I really appreciate your thoughts. They make complete sense especially leaving the requests for “listening” to important instructions like safety and bedtime. We are still on a huge learning curve for this and limiting this I am sure will help. You are right, its tiring for both of us.

    Love the points too about encouraging individuality rather than following adult instruction. The thought of my daughter dancing like a crazy girl like she does now will always make me smile more than seeing her doing a perfect dance routine.

    Not sure we will go back to the class. Every week something about it didn’t feel right. Maybe a trip to our local park where she can do her favorite thing – run through grass with no shoes, pick dandelions, do her own form of rolly pollies and try and climb a tree. Classic but she is so happy and she gets out so much energy and strangely afterward she seems to listen so much more when she has had a chance to run and run and run and I haven’t had to disturb her exploration.

    Again, thank you for taking the time to respond.


    1. You did seem a little conflicted about the class… And now that it’s Spring, a “class” in the park with dandelions and rolly pollies sounds like a really good deal!

      This makes a lot of sense: “she is so happy and she gets out so much energy and strangely afterward she seems to listen so much more when she has had a chance to run and run and run and I haven’t had to disturb her exploration.”

      As Magda Gerber explains in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, “If a child has ample opportunity to play independently, without interruption, he likely to be much willing to cooperate with the demands of his parent.”

      And thank YOU again, Natalia, for being such a thoughtful mom and bringing up this important topic.

  5. Janet,

    Normally I agree with you 100%, but I can’t get on board with the idea that class activity participation stifles creativity. Yes, class may include instruction on the “right” way to swim or dance or do karate, but it’s because there are accepted and appropriate behaviors within each discipline that must be learned, and that’s what’s being taught in class. Learning a new hobby is about acquiring the skills to perform the necessary actions, not just doing what one pleases. If my daughter really wants to jete, plie, and arabesque like a ballerina, she’s going to have to imitate others at some point.

    1. My understanding from Janet’s response is these activities and classes are good but possibly not age appropriate for toddlers because toddlers are possibly best left to learn for themselves first so they can develop their own sense of individuality. This is unless the class allows for self exploration.

      1. Yes exactly, Natalia, thank you!

        Shasta, yes, of course classes are necessary for learning certain skills and are beneficial for children once they are old enough. But the early years are a precious window of time best spent exploring, experimenting, creating, and developing a strong sense of self…in my opinion.

        My personal rule of thumb for calculating readiness was to wait for a child to specifically request the lesson…repeatedly. Then I was certain that my child was doing it because he or she really wanted to, not to please her parents.

        When in doubt, I believe it’s best to wait and trust infants and toddlers to know what they need to be working on.

    2. Yes, Shasta you are right. But at age two this is not age appropriate.

      When a child learns through self directed activities to focus on an activity, then she is ready to try a class which she is interested in. At this point she will be willing and enjoy imitating and being an active participant in a class.

      1. Children have so many years of instruction ahead of them from Kindergarten onwards… Yes Janet this is exactly how I feel.

        When my niece was 10 years old she told me, “Thank you for a great childhood. I was always so excited to come your house.”

        I thought this was a little odd until I thought about it for awhile. Traditional school is stressful for children, even on a subconscious level. She suddenly had to grow up to deal with the demands of school and the stress. Her childhood in essence (at least during the school year) was over.

  6. “The key is not to “get” a child to focus, but rather to recognize her natural ability to focus on what interests her, allow and encourage it.”

    I love this line.

    Today we went to our mommy and toddler group. In the first half the kids had free play. During the second half the ECE sang songs. Julia just wanted to wander around the room and pick up stuffed animals. I let her, she had a great time and I wasn’t exhausted by the time we left. (We’re lucky because our group encourages the kids to do whatever they feel during the songs…as long as its safe. It’s okay to just get up and leave or do something else.)

    I think we really have to put ourselves in our kids shoes when we ask them to do things. I figure at 22 months she didn’t ask me to bring her to toddler group and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect someone under two to restrain themselves from playing with stuffed toys.

    It would be like someone forcing me to go to a restaurant for lunch and then telling me, “Now that you’re here you can’t order what you want. I’m going to order for you and you have to eat it.” I’ll tell you no matter what they ordered, even if it was steak and lobster, eating under duress would ruin the flavour.

    I don’t want to ruin the flavour of things for my girl so I let her focus on (order) what she wants.

    Food metaphors make me hungry!

    Great article Janet!

    1. Suzan, I love the restaurant analogy…”even if it was steak and lobster”! That reminds me of another reason not to start classes or lessons in the toddler years (a time when chiildren are craving autonomy)… If is an activity the toddler enjoys (like painting or somersaults, for example), being directed to do it can take the pleasure away and ruin it for him.

      Your group sounds really good!

  7. Janet, I can’t wait to share this on my Sunday Surf. Your advice to step back and let my children learn by doing has completely changed my relationship with them, and I’ve seen my older soon grow more confident daily as he finds joy in his own discoveries. Thank you for giving me the confidence to step back and allow them to explore on their own — in conventional circles I often feel like I’m not doing enough for them, but here I feel good about my decisions.

    1. Thank you, Suchada. The clincher for me — the way I knew I was on the right track — was the bliss I felt watching my children explore, experiment and create with such confidence, enthusiasm, gusto! Interfere with that to teach them, or show them how to play????

      You describe the experience perfectly in your recent post at Code Name: Mama, “I Love You For Who You Are Right Now.” Everyone should read it!

  8. Janet,
    Remember how I said your blog was the one we always turn to, when we are not sure of ourselves in our parenting journey?
    Well, this is precisely the reason why 🙂
    Great post, and as A begins her toddler years, this is going to be our guiding light.
    Thanks for this.

  9. Hi Janet,
    Thanks for this great post. I just recently discovered your blog, but find that it fits my parenting style really well. It is nice to know that I am not being neglectful but am encouraging my daughter to explore things on her own terms. I sometimes feel really guilty that I’m not doing enough, but you have helped me realize that I’m doing just fine.

    We often go to a storybook time once a week, and Clara (21mos) loves to go, but never sits still to listen to the stories or songs. I was a little worried at first, thinking that the other parents there might judge me for not having her sit quietly on my lab, but after reading your article it reaffirms my own belief that she’s better off doing her own thing, whether that be climbing the stairs or lying in the middle of the floor looking up at the librarian. She’s recently started doing some of the hand motions for “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” and “Where is Thumbkin” so she’s obviously paying attention. It’s just on her own terms.


    1. Hi Sarah! Yes, your daughter is right on track for her age. I encourage you to keep observing, listening, trusting and believing in her, letting her play be hers and enjoying who she is. Only she knows what she’s working on!

  10. Sage words Janet. As always.

    Reading this: “Children have so many years of instruction ahead of them from Kindergarten onwards… Trusting your daughter to be an inner-directed, independent and active learner in these first years is one of the best gifts you can give her.”

    WHEN do YOU think people do benefit from direct instruction? Is it at five? Or do you advocate for more progressive education versus direct instruction? Many people have asked me what RIE’s take is on education and I respond that I don’t think they have one as the focus is on birth through two. When do children begin to benefit from instruction and is it only when it is something that they’ve been drawn to? Would love your thoughts on this as I know you have three grown children!


    1. Thanks, Jennifer! Each child is unique, of course, but I believe that by 5 or 6 years of age (sometimes a little earlier) children can theoretically benefit from instruction. This is when they are entering Piaget’s “concrete operational” stage (not that I always agree with Piaget, but this rings true for me). There are 3 year olds who say YES to swimming lessons and can take that kind of instruction, as long as they are treated respectfully (i.e., not forced or tricked into going underwater). For other kinds of lessons, my personal belief and experience is to wait for the child to repeatedly request the instruction over a long enough period of time that I can be certain it isn’t a passing whim. I’m passionate about preserving inner-direction…so I’m very careful not to even suggest extra-curricular activities to my children. I know how powerful parents can be…and how much children want to please us.

      My experience with direct instruction in grade school (Kindergarten and up) is that children who have been gifted with the window of “trust” for the first years and are continually allowed to choose their extra-curricular activities, can succeed in even the most rigorously academic school environments.

      Not sure if that answers your question…?


      1. It’s definitely a helpful answer. And I really think my children benefit from no extra curricular activity. after all how would it give my daughter time for a five hour Mommy/Daughter marathon with her neighbor? And I love what you’ve said about children who have been gifted with the trust of following their interests for the first 5 years of life, faring well later on. Thank u for your thoughts.

        1. Love the five hour marathon! Thanks for sharing…

  11. Katharine says:

    Natalia’s original question reveals a very self conscious parenting style. Isn’t it a shame she, like many others, lacks the confidence to listen to their inner voice and trust their instincts?
    Why have we, as a society, taught people to look for answers outside of themselves first when really they have the most information relating to their situation?
    With more trust in herself Natalia would have had the guts to leave the class without validation from an expert.
    Thankfully she asked a grounded person grounded common sense!

    1. Katharine, I couldn’t disagree more that this is about “lack of confidence” or “guts”. I hugely admire parents with the humility to educate themselves and seek advice. This means that they understand the great value of their job and are making a concerted effort to be the best parent they can be. Parenting “instincts” are mostly based on the way we were parented… or are a reaction to the way we were parented, and some of these instincts are much healthier than others. What you see as “self consciousness”, I see as awareness. Seeking guidance is nothing to feel ashamed about, quite the opposite, in my opinion!

  12. Here in Australia we have Playgroup each week. Free play for the first half then morning tea (everyone brings a piece of fruit to share) then a group activity. My 3 y.o has never been good at the group tasks – even at morning tea he’s the last one there (usually after most of the kids have left the table). I used to fret about it, hurry him up etc even though that felt wrong to me. But now I just let him play. He tells me that he’s busy and so I just say ok. Sometimes if it’s a activity that I think he’d enjoy I’ll call him over to participate (and if he says he’s not interested then I don’t push) but otherwise I’ll leave him be. He’s 3 and has years ahead of him to work to a schedule and timetable. Right now he’s extremely busy in the sandpit or on the slide and I guess that’s where he needs to be.

  13. Hi Janet, as always I love your articles! The questions I always have come out of the background I have with my 2 children and working with families who have kids with medical and/or developmental challenges… not the more “slightly” behind kind, but the more significant kind…
    What I’m thinking of right now is when you are trying to figure out how much intervention is needed. My son is almost 28 months old and just started walking. Although he is an active, playful, interactive, fun little boy, he does struggle with fatigue, balance, muscle weakness, eating & swallowing difficulties, and other issues that make therapy an important aspect of his life. Intense therapy has been recommended, and we have not done that… When I say that I mean 4 different therapy types and more than 7x per week altogether. I feel too much “adult-led” therapy can be detrimental to him.
    I believe that children are very innately capable and can lead their own development most of the time. But I do feel that in some areas he is struggling and I need some direction in helping him in things like swallowing safely, balance and safety. I’m trying to find a way to make his therapy schedule make sense…we are working our way to a few times per month, and the rest of the time, regular home life, independent play, play dates and just plain fun!
    What are your thoughts on situations like these? Thanks!

    1. Deb, I can only encourage you to keep trusting your instincts. Your awareness level seems very high. Keep getting your boy the help he needs while also being aware of creating balance for him…time when he gets to self-initiate, direct his own play, etc. Stay open to the possibilities of him being able before you intervene. Wait before stepping in. I think you know all of this, so I just want to encourage you!

  14. Omg! I don’t know what took me so long to look this topic up. I have a very active 47 months old little boy and I had just recently signed him up for karate for kids around his age and he is like the worst kid there! He rolls around the mat, pick up the cushion thingies and throws it, run around an turns into a complete noodle when ask to stand up straight or walk. I was feeling so embarrassed thinking about what could possibly both the parents and instructors were thinking. I started to blamed myself as I work full time (and my husband too) and that I failed as a mother to discipline my son at an early age. I thought karate would help divert all the energy he have stored up but he refuses to follow directions and wonders around and ends up interrupting the whole class. It is only his 2nd week but I am beginning to feel way to ashamed to show up in class each week. I thought that perhaps he have selective hearing at home and so we have to constantly repeat ourselves when asking him to do something. And so I thought that taking instructions from others (a more intimidating person) will help but to no avail, probably he’s worst there than at home. So each time he finish the class I am really super hard on him and feel terrible because everyone expects him to behave better since he is getting older and again I feel as if it is my fault. But with your explanation I now know what I should do. I will ease up and continue to encourage him to try (coz when we practice at home he does a great job) as long as he don’t interrupt the class and to not stress and beat myself up. After one month if I don’t see any improvement perhaps I will try a different activity. But he’ll need to still learn to follow directions. Wish us luck! Thank you!

  15. I agree wholeheartedly and thank you so much for writing this. 🙂

    I have a question with regard to swim lessons. We’ve had a few tough experiences around water and decided that it’s time to do swim lessons for safety. (He loves being in the water but has developed anxiety around it, and then he works through it and has another scary incident and gets even more scared, etc. We’ve always been right there so there’s never been a really dangerous situation but I am not happy with the way it’s going.) My son is just 3yo. We found a swim school that doesn’t ever push them to do something they’re not ready to do (I asked specifically), and that will let me be in the water with him even though he is over 3.

    I’m curious how what you wrote here applies to swim lessons. Specifically, anything you think we should or should not do when we get there?

    1. Hi Amanda! I like the way this arrangement sounds. I’m glad they aren’t pushy. The way I see it, the ideal would be your little guy being interested in the lessons himself (and I realize this is an unpopular opinion), so I would take cues from him as much as possible. When children want the lessons, they learn quickly and almost effortlessly. If he is resistant, I would hold off for a bit. I understand the worry about safety, but the truth is — you will not be able to take your eyes off your son around water for at least a few more years. I’m not questioning your choices! But if you’re asking… I don’t see a reason to rush this and risk making swimming an unnecessarily unpleasant experience for him.

    2. FYI, even an experienced swimmer (such as a 12 year old on a local team) can have a drowning incident. I just learned this summer that ‘drowning does not look like drowning (ie what we see in the movies)’. See the article
      Yes, you will always need to keep an eye on your child or know that the lifeguards change stations every 1 minutes. Look up another article there on why lifeguards need to change every 15 minutes (mental fatigue of looking constantly).

      1. typo… lifeguards need to change every 15 fifteen minutes

  16. Great post! In our Montessori classrooms, we see every day how children suddenly manage to focus for astoundingly long periods of time, on those things they are interested in. The exciting thing is that this inner-motivated focus then slowly grows, and transfers to other activities–to the point where five-year-olds literally can work on one activity they choose themselves for two hours or more!

    For those interested in classes that don’t stifle toddler creativity, I would like to highly recommend the Music Together program. Not sure if you’ve been to it, Janet? I’ve attended it with both my children when they were infants and toddlers, and I loved that the whole set-up was about offering a wide variety of music, with lots of activity–and leaving it up to the children to what extend they wanted to participate. The instructors were very explicit with us parents that we needed to just do our own thing, that we weren’t to take our children’s hands to clap, or make them sit down when they wandered off. Over time, the enthusiasm of the parents rubbed off, and the older toddlers (2-3 years) would suddenly join the movements, or begin hitting the drums, or start singing the songs.


  18. Love this! I was just having this discussion with my husband the other day. We take our toddler (19 months) to a Music Together class because he absolutely moves music. He’s very into music at home, fascinated by my husband’s guitar, etc. While the class is quite structured in terms of the teacher having a schedule of songs, the kids can do what they want. My son naturally wants to sit, pay attention and learn the songs, dances, and movements to each song (kids are encouraged to do own movements and dances too). He usually starts doing his own dances and movements after about 20 minutes which is totally fine. There is some “free time” where the teacher puts the instruments in the middle of the room with some soft music and the kids can do their own thing (which is so amazing and lovely to watch). Anyway, I think this is fine because my son is choosing to do what the teacher/parents are doing or not. My husband is worried because he thinks it’s still too structured to have any type of “class” for a toddler. What do you think? (It looks like someone above likes Music Together too!) I like that it’s a family activity we can all do, my son walks around humming the songs, and he gets excited and jumps up and down when we enter the Music Together room. He obviously loves it.

  19. This is a very interesting article. My 3.5 year old son had a hard time in “traditional” preschool because they always wanted him to focus on things he wasn’t interested in. He is a very smart boy and very active, so trying to have him sit still to color a page was torture. He does like to sit and do crafts like play doh and make actual crafts or play stickers, but preschool was hard. When we moved, I took him out of school and haven’t found something I think will work that we can also afford. This article gives me a new perspective. I still am not sure what we are going to do for school this coming fall and I wanted a class for the spring, but I’m not in such a rush for regular preschool anymore.

  20. Hi Janet, I absolutely LOVE your blog. This has been such a saving grace for my 18 month old daughter. Where I live, there are free classes Monday-friday from 9am-12pm offered at local elementary schools. 9-1030 is free play (which I Love because they’re encouraged to do whatever they want and the activity stations are being changed weekly. Some examples are blocks, sand box, a bowl of rice to play with, play dough etc. lots of sensory play. I just follow her lead and whatever she wants to do. But at 1030 it’s “circle time” where all the kids have to sit down and be quiet while they wait for the snacks. and then they sing songs but are told not to go play with toys. It requires parent participation so I’m supposed to try to get her to stay in her seat. After snack time it’s then story circle time and again we’re encouraged to keep our kids sitting. I tried staying until 12 a couple times and it just didn’t sit well with me. It feels too soon to impose this on my daughter, so I have been leaving everytime at 1030 when the free play is over. Is this right? What do you think of the free play time?

    The other kinds of classes I have her in are drop in “gymnastics” classes but again these are free play, not directed at all. There are big mats and trampolines and things to climb on, different types of car toys too. But basically we go and i let her take the lead. What do you think of this type of class?

    I’ve read that RIE suggests staying at home as much as possible – is that right? I always feel “bad” on days she doesn’t leave the house because I feel like it’s good for her to have a change of scenery. Any comments on this?

    Thanks in advance!! And again, thank you for your blog! Can’t tell you how often I’m on your site!

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