EAST FISHKILL, N.Y. – Gyms are typically places to sweat, shoot hoops, backflip, benchpress or box. Then there's the Little Gym. The balance beam here has training rails, flips are done in slow-motion with Mommy holding tight, and the instructor cheers athletes who walk down the big cushy pads without falling on their diapered bottoms with a hearty, "Ta Da!"
This franchise run by sisters Meredith Rockett and Dariane Mirando in the Hudson Valley suburbs caters to babies, toddlers, preschoolers and elementary kids.
It's one of many kid-centric operations cropping up around the country with names like My Gym or Gymboree Play & Music. Industry experts say the gym programs catering to kids are being helped by parents spooked by the rising tide of childhood obesity and the lack of unstructured outlets for play.
Mirando says that when she and her sister were growing up, "Mom would say, 'Go out and ride your bikes and I don't want to see you until dinner.' Unfortunately, society doesn't allow that anymore."
Gym programs for kids are nothing new. The first Little Gym opened in 1976 and health clubs have been offering programs like "Mommy and Me Swimming" for a while. But the idea is picking up steam. Children under age 18 represent the second-fastest growing health club demographic after the over-55 crowd, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. The group reports that health club memberships for kids age 6 to 11 grew by more than a third from 1999 to 1.8 million last year.
Adult chains like Town Sports International have responded with programs like Sports Club for Kids, in which participants can take a spinning class while watching a virtual reality DVD. At the same time, gyms for children are more common. The number of Little Gym franchises nationwide is expected to jump from 189 now to 244 by the end of next year, said president and chief executive officer Robert Bingham.
These different gyms offer fitness programs for kids in all shapes and sizes, often with names like "Gym Dandy" or "Mighty Mites."
The Fishkill Little Gym, a "Type A" clean space with multicolored mats and gymnastic equipment, focuses on programs for kids age 10 months to 12 years. Classes are designed for different age groups.
A recent class run by Rockett for parents and kids age 19 months to 2 1/2 years centered on basic movement. Instead of full-on cartwheels, four toddling girls were encouraged to do feet-barely-leave-the-ground versions called "monkey jumps." They did donkey kicks instead of handstands. Rockett broke out jingle bells and bubbles.
Coaxing and cooing her way through the 45-minute session, Rockett knows that none of the toddlers can flip backward over a parallel bar, at least intentionally. Her goal is "progressive skill building" — breaking down athletic feats into toddler-sized portions. She cradles kids in her arms as they grab the bar, guiding them though a slow-motion pullover.
In a matter of weeks, she said, some of the kids will be swinging from bars.
This is a clearly noncompetitive atmosphere. Young students are prone to wandering off and teething on bean bags, and parents guiding their children through class said their main goal was to have fun. Maribeth Karas said she signed up her 1 1/2-year-old daughter for the chance to be with other kids.
"She likes it," Karas said. "She likes the motion and the singing — and it makes her sleepy too!"
Jane Clark, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, said these gym programs can fill a void in developing physical skills in children. Clark helped draw up infant-through-preschooler guidelines released a few years ago by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. Those call for regular physical activity from the earliest years.
"Children don't go out and play like they used to, so unfortunately, we have to create these environments for them," she said.
Alarm about children's physical fitness — about 30 percent of U.S. schoolchildren are estimated to be overweight and about half of those, obese — probably helps business too. Brooke Correia, a spokeswoman for the health club industry group, said the programs also make more sense in an era when kids' lives are heavily regimented with extracurricular activities like scouts and music. Gym time becomes yet another block on the schedule.
Clark warns, though, that parents considering kid gym programs should avoid competitive games. Also, watch out for instructors that tell young kids they're doing things the wrong way.
"Your child should have fun," Clark said. "They should have a variety of experiences and they should be challenged to do things just a little bit better."