Can you ever be too young to learn about black holes, or pick up a pair of nunchucks?
Sussex’s youngest residents are being offered an increasing variety of activities, from Mandarin and maths to massage.
Chief reporter EMILY WALKER asks if pushy parents are offering their precocious children too much.
Gone are the days when playing with sand or fingerpaints was enough to entertain a toddler.
From Chinese classes for two-year-olds and jujitsu for four-year-olds, Sussex’s babies are now offered the widest array of activities in the country.
Last week, the first toddler astronomy classes in the country were held at a Brighton nursery and a new martial arts school in Lewes will teach judo to four-year-olds and the weapons-based martial art kobudo to six-year-olds.
And from just a few weeks old, Brighton babies can luxuriate in a massage.
But it’s not all about pampering and can be an essential lifeline to premature babies or mothers suffering from post-natal depression.
Massage therapist Lucy Johns, who runs baby massage classes in Brighton, said: “Mums, dads and carers who have attended classes here will tell you how they have managed to calm their over- wrought baby, relieve colicky, windy symptoms, no longer have a constipated baby and have finally had their first decent night’s sleep, all through the power of touch.
“Babies who aren’t touched affectionately fail to thrive and in extreme circumstances die. Baby massage offers a complete sensory experience that aids their physical and mental development.
“Research has shown that massaging a premature baby will help them to gain weight quicker.
"A mum suffering from post-natal depression may find that the massage helps her to bond with her baby.
"I’d say those babies definitely need massage to help them grow and thrive.”
Whilst pushy parents may want to give their offspring a headstart before they get anywhere near a classroom there is solid scientific research to suggest some early learning can help.
A recent study from the New York Academy of Sciences found that babies exposed to classical music from six months old showed a marked increase in brain development and “more positive social development”.
But another popular baby activity – baby signing – tipped by practitioners to help infants’ communication skills, has recently been found to show no scientific proof of improved learning.
Hundreds of sign-language classes across Sussex promise to “stimulate the senses and improve development” but research from the University of Hertfordshire found there was no evidence at all that it accelerated their language development.
Dr Liz Kirk, from the university’s Department of Psychology, recruited forty mothers and their eight-month-old babies to take part in the study.
Whilst she found little evidence of the subject matter improving development, she did find benefits to the increased interaction between mothers and babies.
Dr Kirk said: “Although babies learnt the gestures and used them to communicate long before they started talking, they did not learn the associated words any quicker than the non-gesturing babies, nor did they show enhanced language development.
“However, of significant interest, the study’s findings did reveal that mothers who gestured with their babies were more responsive to their babies' non-verbal clues and encouraged them to think of their baby as an individual with a mind.
"This has great potential in clinical situations where early gestures from babies or young children may provide timely interventions where there is risk of language delay or impairment.”
Last week astronomers taught toddlers at Playcare Nursery, in Windlesham Road, Brighton, how to look through telescopes and set off rockets in the first ever classes of their kind.
Andy Lawes, from the East Sussex Astronomical Society, said: “It’s the first time we have visited a playgroup as we normally provide activities for ages nine and older.
"The children really asked us some tough questions and maybe our visit will spark an interest in space that will last; hopefully we have inspired some of them to look up at the night sky in a different way.”
Nursery manager Sara Lee said: “Our idea behind it is the thinking that learning from exciting things and enquiring minds is a good thing.
“We are looking at things children want to find out about. “There has been a lot of stuff on TV at the moment about space so it’s something their parents might have been talking about.
“We have been trying to do different things in the nursery rather than just every day activities.
“We are doing taster classes from birth upwards. French classes from two and the astronomy classes with four-year-olds.”
It is a fairly well accepted school of thought that children learn foreign languages better and quicker than adults.
Psychologists at Bristol University found that the developing brain undergoes a period of “programming” in infancy.
They concluded that babies exposed to multiple languages during their first few months retain the ability to recognise sounds from all the languages they hear.
King’s College London conducted scans of toddlers’ brains and found there was a “critical period” for learning a second or even third language – from zero to four years old.
They also found that learning a foreign language had a significant impact on cognitive problem solving.
As well as the usual Spanish, French and German speaking toddler groups across Sussex, there’s a growing interest in learning the language of the world’s largest growing economy.
The Little Dragon Mandarin School teaches toddlers from two years old to speak Chinese.
The classes are so popular they run at two separate venues – in Fiveways and Hove – to cater for demand.
They say that when it comes to learning a foreign language “the earlier the better”.
At their Toddler Club for two to four-year-olds, children are able to perfect pronunciation much more easily than adults and learn “without noticing they are talking another language”.
To aid physical as well as mental development, black belt Ray Twitchen has begun teaching martial arts for children as young as four in Lewes.
By using his mascot “Jujitsu Ted” he hopes to help younger children learn about martial arts.
His classes, at the Landport Youth Centre, include teaching six year olds kobudo, a weapons based martial art using nunchucks.
He starts judo classes from the age of four. Ray, who started teaching judo in schools in 1960s, said: “The whole idea is to teach youngsters through exercise and games. It’s good for the mind and good for the brain and it is fantastic exercise.
“I teach judo and jujitsu from four years old and call them Little Dragons.
“The kobudo and weapons training is for the slightly older ones as you want to be a bit careful about the little ones and weapons.”
Mathemagical run pre-school math classes in Worthing, Angmering and Haywards Heath and say that children start thinking mathematically even before their first birthdays.
They say you are never too young to start learning.
Their ethos echoes research published by the US National Library of Medicine that found babies aged just three months old were aware of numeracy.
Mathemagical’s founder Stephanie Cracknell says on their website: “There is plenty of evidence to show that no matter how good early years practitioners or school teachers may be, this will never have the same beneficial effect on a child’s mathematical thinking and understanding as parents who actively involve themselves in their children’s learning of mathematics.
“We expose pre-school children to a fun and active mathematical environment with stimulating games and resources that they will enjoy.
"While your child plays they will be learning the very foundations of mathematics that will prepare them for one of the most important subjects of their school career.
"And they will learn that this subject is fun.
“Although many parents count with their children, there is so much more mathematics that pre-school children are capable of learning. So why wait until they are almost five years old?”