When Scarlett Sapieha was five months old, she was enrolled in her first class: Baby Sign Language. At the ripe old age of eight months, she started her first music class, and by the time she was 16 months old she was a student of the Royal Conservatory of Music. At the age of six, she had four years of gymnastics, three years of ballet and two years of tennis and swimming lessons under her belt.

Every parent wants what’s best for their budding Beethoven or potential Picasso, but that doesn’t mean overloading their child’s schedule with every form of early education is the way to go. Along with saving for their future education, programs for kids cost money, not to mention the sheer exhaustion of juggling multiple commitments.

“The classes can really add up,” says Scarlett’s dad, Chad Sapieha, who spent six hours a week driving his daughter to and from school and activities.

Here are a few tips to help you keep your expectations and budget in check:

Explore your options

The most important part about early childhood education is not the skills acquired in these classes, but the opportunity for socialization.

Learning to get along with other children is often the first hurdle to clear, and one that will carry over into all forms of early education.

If you’re unsure about whether your child is ready to attend nursery school, consider enrolling in a co-operative program that will allow you to help out. This will enable you to observe your son or daughter in the classroom, easing both you and your child into a school routine.

Test and learn

As your child’s personality develops, so will his or her interests. Just because four-year-old Noah wants to try karate today doesn’t mean that enrolling him in a class will commit you to lessons until he receives his black belt. Try programs for the sake of trying them, and don’t panic if everything doesn’t stick.

A cost-effective way of testing and learning is enrolling your child in community programs. They tend to be less expensive than privately run programs and often have shorter durations, which means you can try many different types of activities, often for the same cost as one private program. In the event that your child shows an aptitude and a real love for a sport or activity, you can move him or her over to a more specialized program later on.

Stay real

Laura Ono, director and founder of My Musical Upbringing, which offers early childhood music classes, says she often needs to remind parents that the class is for the child.

“The first thing I tell parents is that every child is different and therefore they may not respond to music in the same way. They cannot and should not force participation. Instead, I advise them to engage wholeheartedly in the class themselves and invite their children to join in when they are ready,” says Ono. “It’s tempting to make comparisons in a group setting, but each child truly does develop at his or her own pace.”

Don’t rush your child

For every child who's a prodigy there are millions of kids who aren’t, so don’t expect your son or daughter to be the next Yo-Yo Ma. In fact, while Ono recommends that parents engage their kids in music classes that explore the elements of music such as rhythm, beat, pitch, dynamics, form, timbre and harmony, she suggests that they wait before beginning instruction on an instrument.

“Don’t be in a hurry to start your child on an instrument. Most children typically begin any time after Grade One, but of course there are exceptions and it ultimately depends on the child,” she says. The bottom line is that each parent needs to do what’s right for his or her family, whether it includes formal early childhood education or not.

Prepare for your child’s early education

  • Volunteer to help out in class so you can watch your child's progress.
  • Be patient. It may take time for your child to find his or her niche.
  • There's no doubt about the benefits of getting an early start on saving for post-secondary education. Find out how a registered education savings plan (RESP) can help.