There are many activities your preschooler can participate in, so why choose gymnastics? Most experts agree that motor skills, listening, direction following and attention span are some of the most important skills your child should develop in order to be successful in kindergarten. Your child has been developing these skills because of various stimuli and activities that you have exposed him or her to since birth.
Many sports teach commitment, dedication and time management. However, gymnastics, because of the complex progression of skills and the vast number of physical techniques required to master elements on the different events, teaches perseverance, patience and discipline beyond the realm of many other physical activities. When a child participates in a gymnastics class he is developing a wide variety of motor skills. A gymnast develops speed, strength and agility while simultaneously learning balance and grace. Few sports teach such a diverse range of skills. A student must develop acute listening skills in order to be able to transfer verbal instructions to complex, physical movements. The balance beam event, in particular, teaches the student to focus and concentrate for prolonged periods. Gymnasts tend to do well in school because they are able to utilize this ability while studying.
Is It Safe?
If you are only familiar with the level of gymnastics that you see on television, you may be asking yourself, ‘Is this sport safe?’ After all, the skills that we see elite gymnasts perform at international competitions do seem a bit daunting. Most children, however, never reach this level of performance.
It would be irresponsible to suggest that your child won’t get injured doing gymnastics. Relatively speaking, however, the playground is a more dangerous place than your local gymnasium. In a 1999 issue of Technique Magazine (a publication of USA Gymnastics), Dr. W. A. Sands discusses a study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission on the number of people visiting emergency rooms and the subsequent per cent of admissions. Gymnastics ranked lower than 23 common sports and activities including bicycling, climbing on playground equipment and swimming in pools—activities that almost all of our children participate in. Dr. Sands mentions that the information represents ‘all of gymnastics, including injuries that occur from striking the furniture while performing in the living room.’ Obviously, in a controlled and supervised environment, injury is less likely.
There have been many changes over the years. The equipment is continually improved with safety in mind. When I began competing in the 70s, we used wooden balance beams and folded mats held together by Velcro! With the advent of foam pits, padded balance beams and softer crash mats, learning gymnastics has never been safer.
Choosing the Right Gym for Your Child
It is best to visit all the gyms in your area. This way you can get a good feel for how the staff members relate to the children as well as the overall atmosphere in the gym. Make an appointment ahead of time so you can speak with the owner of the gym as well as the instructors who will be teaching your child. You should also watch the specific class your child will attend. For instance, do not watch a team practice if you plan to enrol in a ‘Moms and Tots’ class. This enables you to see first-hand how the coaches relate to students your child’s age. Many gyms distribute a ‘philosophy on coaching’ statement with their enrolment papers. Be sure to read this carefully. Check to see if they promote safety and having fun as primary goals.
Be prepared with specific questions. This list might include:
- May my child take a trial class?
- What is the student-teacher ratio?
- Are make-ups provided for missed classes?
- What is your emergency policy?
- Do you provide family discounts if more than one child is enroled per family?
- What is your policy concerning bad behaviour during class?
Finally, you will want to take a good look around the gym. Are there bulletin boards with updated parents’ information, gym rules and schedules? Is the atmosphere controlled, or noisy and chaotic with several classes going on at once? Preschoolers should have as few distractions as possible. Is there plenty of room between the equipment and the spectator area or are you concerned that one of the students might tumble into your lap? Parents should be able to watch their child participate in class, but there should also be rules concerning younger siblings and babies. Is there a play area so that siblings of students can amuse themselves while your child is taking class? Better yet, is there a homework area for older siblings? Do the coaches instruct the students at their level, so that instructions are easily understood? Most importantly, watch the children closely. Do they seem excited and motivated? The best pre-school programs provide a positive and encouraging atmosphere with structured and continuous activities.
What You Should Expect Your Child to Learn
Your child will be working on activities that strengthen and develop her motor skills as well as her listening and social skills. She will acquire flexibility, balance, strength, speed and grace at a pace that is geared toward her age group. Many gyms set up “obstacle type” courses where the children go through six to eight stations of skill building activities. Your child will acquire shoulder, leg and back flexibility as well as basic tumbling skills. She will also be introduced to the equipment (vault, balance beam and uneven bars). For vaulting, your child will start on matting blocks to learn hurdling and landing skills. She will learn basic swing techniques on the bars. She will learn to exchange balance from one foot to the other, and she will learn proper focus while traveling sideways, backwards and forward on the beam. Sometimes coaches incorporate games or music and movement activities. Your child will not be doing complete routines at this level. Instead, she will acquire the proper progression of basic skills and she will learn that gymnastics is fun as well as challenging.