[UPDATED: July 18, 2012]
As September approaches, New York City families are signing up their kids for extracurricular classes. As an Upper West Side mom of a very energetic two-year-old, I've spent countless hours trying out various kids' classes in our neighborhood. We've sampled quite a few, everything from music to gymnastics to art. I call it our "toddler class crawl," and it's been a great way to figure out which programs work for my son without making a major time and financial commitment to a class he ends up hating.
Here's the scoop on how our toddler class crawl came to be, and two Upper West Side tot spots that, in my opinion, stand out from the rest.
Last year my son turned two, and after researching a crazy long list of classes in our area, I decided not to sign up for any. Why? For starters, they were all pretty expensive. Also, his nap time and attention span were still unpredictable, so I questioned how much we'd get out of any of them.
Then one day I opened my email and found my solution: a deal to buy 10 drop-in classes at a music program that I had been considering, at half price. I started to sign up for all of the parent-centric deal sites I could find (like Mommy Poppins' very own Poppins Perks), and soon I'd purchased enough toddler classes to keep us busy through the winter.
While many programs offer free demo classes, which are wonderful, with these deals my son was able to enjoy multiple sessions at each place. In many ways it was perfect. I saved a lot of money, had a flexible schedule and my son got to try many different activities. But there was one big drawback: Just when my son got into a groove with a class, our deal would run out and we'd have to start all over again somewhere new.
We had fun at many of the toddler classes we tried, but there were two we just loved, and we'll definitely be doing them again this year. Neither is offered by the bigger, more commercial kid-focused chains on the Upper West Side, but these smaller, simpler offerings were our favorites.
Elliott's Gymnastics Classes
131 West 86th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues first floor
Elliott is a local celebrity among the toddler set. He and a small team run a great gymnastics program for kids at their indoor studio and outside in Central Park. My son left his first class beaming with pride and excited to return. Elliott's routines seem fairly typical, but he really knows how to motivate and engage young children. The class is definitely physical (it really tuckered my son out), but in addition to honing their motor skills through running, jumping and mimicking animals, the students learn how to follow directions and be more independent. Kids are required to do things on their own in every session, so for the first time I didn't feel like I was the one taking the class. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to cheer on their children from the sidelines, not hand hold. Elliott and his employees know how to handle the kids without parents having to step in. A mommy friend of mine who recommended the class once said, "His facilities aren't as picture perfect as other places, but his thoughtful curriculum and staff make up for that ten times over." I agree. Elliott offers classes for babies to teens. They can be pricey but you get a better deal if you register for multiple sessions at once. A preschool alternative program is now also being offered.
Creative Play for Kids
Church of St. Paul/St. Andrew, 263 West 86th Street at West End Avenue second floor
Visit the website for other Manhattan locations
My son loves Creative Play classes, which combine movement, stories, play, socializing, learning and fun. Although that may sound like a lot of activities to pack into an hour, the classes are never overwhelming thanks to founder and teacher Eileen Levine. She holds sessions at a number of locations around Manhattan, including an empty room inside a church on West 86th Street that comes alive when she enters with her box full of books, bubbles and other toddler-friendly toys. The kids have a blast interacting with Eileen, who's always as full of energy as they are. She has a way of making basic games with parachutes and puppets wildly engrossing. (And trust me, it's not always easy to hold my son's attention, even with those gimmicks.) Creative Play is also a good value with reasonable drop-in rates and discounts for multi-class cards.
For more great kids' classes, check out our Classes Guide.