small fry fitness

By Marc Bloom
Self Magazine / May 1988

While we got fit, kids got flabby- this much we know from the much-publicized results of physical-fitness tests in elementary schools. Does that mean you should snatch your kid out of the crib and head for the nearest baby gym or playground? Hold on just a minute- and read on. School-age kids may be suffering from phys. Ed class cutbacks, but for prekindergarteners, experts worry more about too much regimented activity than too little. “There’s no reason for a child to take formal instruction before four or five,” says David Elkind, Ph.D., author of Miseducation, Preschoolers at Risk. Not only are baby and toddler bodies not ready muscle- and bone-wise to jog, swim laps or wham a tennis ball, but their developing sense of themselves isn’t aided by activity that fosters competition or demands fine physical control. In fact, self-confidence and enthusiasm can be eroded when kids try to do specialized moves they’re just not ready for.

Play’s the Thing
So what’s the best way to get an under-five child on the road to lifelong body confidence? Good old play. Kids “practice” new body skills- reaching, standing, walking, throwing- over and over until they master them, and with enormous motivation and concentration (which gets them, for example, from helpless walking in about a year). “Kids like to move because they’re interested in the world,” says Richard Chase, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. And, as every mother knows, they don’t have to be encouraged to be active. Where you come in: simply providing the opportunities for exploration- what the child pros call a “stimulating environment”- at home, in the park or in one of the creative movement/play “classes” cropping up across the country in chains like Gymboree and Playorena, at Ys and health clubs and in studios just for kids.

Who Needs Baby Gyms?
While disciplined, adultlike classes (tiny tennis, kiddie karate) are discouraged by child-development experts, the more creative, free-form kind may provide just what kids (and you) need to make the most of an under-five’s energy level. What you should find:

    • A mat-padded, colorful space where kids can run, fall, roll, tumble and throw freely.
    • A leader with a bunch of creative ideas (songs, stories, games) and props (hoops, balls, foam blocks), as well as a knack for reading baby body language, so energy gets revved up, calmed down in sync with what’s natural for them. (She also needs to be a pro at recognizing and reassuring worried parents- which means helping them discover the range of what kids can do by participating.)
    • Other babies and moms to make a class a social activity and an outing to look forward to when you know “exercise”- and you-and-baby time- is scheduled in.
    • Ideas to take home.

All these rewards are good reasons to consider a class. But there’s no sign-up pressure here. Because the other point experts make is this: Much of the same stuff can be done happily and effectively at home. To help you let loose, we gleaned some guidelines from the folks who teach kids’ classes and early-childhood specialists. (For more ideas, or specific questions about one particular age group, talk to your pediatrician or check out a parent education class or child development guide.)

The Six Keys to Kiddie Exercise
How do you know when your baby’s hungry, or your two-year-old’s tired? You’ve looked hard and listened and sensed so many times, you “just know.” Same with play/exercise. You’re the best judge of when your kid is ready to catch a ball or take a real walk with you. But to keep things healthy/interesting, keep these across-the-board ideas in mind.
Keep your hands on. With infants, who will wiggle all the need for exercise, the most important thing you can do is provide a nurturing, reassuring touch, says Sarah Wilford, director of The Early Childhood Center at Sarah Lawrence College. Move a baby’s arms and legs and sing along, for instance. With older kids, a steadying pair of adult hands around the middle of the body gives you both a sense of security whena toddler starts jumping off park benches or tackling the balance beam at his “gym.” Watch teachers; they use their hands to guide three-year-old heads into a forward roll or legs into a headstand. If your child’s itching to learn a specific move, hand-guiding is one of the best ways to show how.

    • Get Down to Their Level. Don’t know what to do? Don’t know what to do? Try what your child’s doing. Sounds obvious- but not if you need nudging (as many adults do) to start crawling on the floor or skipping. This tactic is especially effective with prewalkers, who are eager to play catch-me, where-am-I games (and who can begin to learn important concepts like “under” and “over,” “behind” and “through” just by chasing around the couch.) Once you’re willing to take the cue from them, you open up lots of opportunities for imitation from both directions- and you’ll get some exercise yourself. Put on some music, for instance, and you may find yourself in a free-form dance workout with your baby ballerina.
    • Bring on the Props. As age two approaches, games of make-believe and stories to act out become more attractive. Smart teachers rely on multipurpose toys like balls, hoops, scarves, foam blocks- things that can be thrown, kicked, rolled, climbed on, and turned into many things (like a hoop doubling as house for a spider). So feel free to mix up moving with make-believe (“The spider stretched out all eight legs, ran as fast as he could to the other side of the room, and curled up to go to sleep,” etc.- animals in general work well). In Gymboree classes, gym mats are often turned into tunnels and mountains to crawl through a climb over. (Try pillows and quilts at home.) Such activities teach concepts of space and distance, which are increasingly important the more mobile a child becomes.
    • Make a Safe Space. Parents sometimes need more educating than kids when it comes to letting go of body fears, notes Suellen Epstein, director of Children’s Tumbling in New York City. After all, even if you can hoof your way through aerobics class, it’s probably been a long time since you were tempted to jump out of a tree or hang by one knee from the top of a jungle gym. While kids’ watch-me daring may always have you catching your breath, you can minimize the instinct to say no by creating a play space that’s soft and safe. Or it space is a premium, you’d rather not have your furniture turned into a jungle gym, opt for a class. Search out a good, safe playground. Then keep hands-on (at-first) and do what your kids do, and you’ll have peace of mind- and fun.

Above all, don’t worry. Where there are kids, there’s the urge to move. All you need to do is nurture it, and a little kid will be plenty “fit”.


Read Articles from Other Publications Featuring Children’s Tumbling and Suellen Epstein:

Child Magazine, June 1989

Child Magazine, May 1991

Tribeca Citizen, June 2010