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A baby swims during a water babies class in Dallas.

L.M. OTERO/Associated Press

This week, Toronto parents like myself will be setting their alarm early to prepare to do battle by telephone or computer. At 7 AM (ET) on Wednesday, September 14th, registration begins for Toronto and East York Parks and Recreation programs and it really is a case of "you snooze, you lose."

You can register by phone, in person or online – some people choose to do all three -- and the more popular programs can be filled by mid-morning. (For those in the GTA, North York programs start registering this Tuesday, while Etobicoke, York and Scarborough programs began registration this past weekend).

I've had the annoying experience of hitting redial and refresh repeatedly for 30 minutes, fretting my kids aren't going to get into the classes they are so excited about.

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It may seem like a lot of work just for toddler ballet or mini-sports, but it's worth it. Toronto Parks and Recreation programs are usually a fraction of the price you would pay for comparable classes offered by private schools.

For a 9-week session, once-per-week classes are usually between $30 and $40, with some more equipment-intensive classes (like gymnastics, for example) coming in at double that. Compared with private companies that offer programs around the city, it's a true bargain. Here's a comparison of how some of the City of Toronto programs stack up:

City of Toronto Kindergymnastics (Age 4-5): $63 for 9 weeks (one 45-minute class/week) Gymnastics School A: $590 for 36 weeks Gymnastics School B: $229 for 15 weeks

City of Toronto Ballet (Age 3 to 5): $32 for 9 weeks (one half-hour class/week) Dance school A: $258 for 15 weeks Dance school B: $217 for 16 weeks

City of Toronto Indoor Soccer (Age 3 to 4): $32 for 9 weeks (one 45 minutes class/week) Sports School A: $261 for 14 weeks Sports School B: $126 for 9 weeks

City of Toronto Making Music (Age 18 mo to 3 yrs): $34 for 9 weeks (one half-hour class/week) Music school A: $234 for 12 weeks Music school B: $259 for 14 weeks

Some will argue that the private schools offer a higher calibre of instruction. And indeed, if you are determined to train your child to be the next Gould, Barishnikov or Pele, you may want to enroll your child into one of the pricey schools. But for anyone who is looking for an hour or two of fun exposure to a new activity for their kids, city programs more than fit the bill. I can personally attest that the classes are generally quite good, with enthusiastic teachers and plenty of energetic activity for the kids.

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As an example, I paid a couple hundred bucks for weekly "mom-and-tot" music classes from a private company when my kids were toddlers. It was fine, but the city-run class we took a few months later were just as good and a quarter of the price. We haven't tried swimming lessons yet, but plan to this winter session – we've heard nothing but good things about the lessons offered at our local community centre.

You might have noticed that the sessions are generally shorter than they would be in a private school (only 9 weeks as opposed to 12 or 14 or 28), but especially when you have preschoolers, it can often be a good thing to have a shorter commitment, just in case little Jeffrey isn't taking to trampoline and decides he wants to try hip hop instead. Also, if your child doesn't like the city-run class you've enrolled them in, you can take him out and get a pro-rated refund and try something else.

The biggest hurdle to these classes is that many of them are difficult to get into, because so many parents across the city have figured out they are the best deal in town (and the frantic registration process does elicit a lot of complaints from other parents I've spoken to). But even if you don't get the classes you wanted, you may be able to find one at a different location. Or something else that looks good.

You can find the Toronto and East York Fun Guide, a detailed list of all the locations and programs, online here. (There are plenty of classes for adults as well). There are separate Fun Guides for Etobicoke York, Scarborough, and North York.

Another cost-effective bonus: If you are a new mom on mat leave, if you have a nanny looking after your children during the day or if you are a stay-at-home parent, many community centres across the city offer free indoor playgrounds at set times throughout the week (check the Fun Guide to find one in your area).

It's not just Toronto that offers this kind of programming – cities like Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver and Halifax have the same reasonably-priced programming (registration dates vary). So if you have kids looking for something to do, check your local Parks and Rec department to see what your city has to offer.

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