As a children's gymnastics provider, we often get the question "How early can they start?" and the closely related question of "What can they actually do at that age?". Both completely relevant and understandable questions, especially when our reply is that in The Little Gym programme, we can start them as early as 4months old. That's always the point we get the raised eyebrows!
To be fair, the natural tendency would be to visualise a baby flying across the room doing cartwheels and backflips, as this is the typical mental perception of gymnastics. Well, not quite. Though it is truly amazing what babies as young as a few months can do when assisted (or 'spotted') by properly by trained teachers, at that age it usually starts with the small component parts of the whole movement. For instance, a baby being assisted to do a "wheelbarrow" is the start of bigger load bearing skills such handstands or cartwheels.
The well proven and well researched reality is that movement for young children is essential for their cognitive development as well as the more obvious physical development. Occupational Therapists who deal with children struggling with sensory perception issues refer to this as "They Pyramid of Learning" (ref. Williams and Shellenberger). Essentially it means that the path to academic learning starts with a strong basis of sensory integration, brought about by physical movement. The earlier this process is started, the better!
Getting into this topic one level deeper, the specific physical movements required incorporate movement in all planes (vertical, horizontal and diagonal) as well as experiences in rotation, balance and elevation. Though there are a few sports and baby programmes that offer some of these, gymnastics is one of the only activities that can offer all of these, and can be broken down into smaller component movements suitable for young babies.
How young his too young? For us, as long as your baby can start bearing his or her own weight, they are ready to be challenged!
As a parent, I often wonder how many activities my daughter can participate in before it gets too much for her (and me!). This will be especially true when she starts school this September. She already goes to The Little Gym, swimming, music classes and now she has taken an interest in ballet (no surprise there for a little girl!). Then, of course, there is kids theatre, specific sports programmes, languages.... the list goes on and it seems that we parents can live our lives shuttling our kids from school to one activity after another.
So how do we choose and prioritise? One idea is to focus on "core" or "life skills" with sufficient exposure to other "interest" activities as a child grows and becomes interested naturally in other things. So for me, I have settled on three main activities for my daughter to give her what I feel are core skills that will set her up for life: swimming, The Little Gym and music lessons. Swimming is self-explanatory, and music I believe is an essential arts skill for the development of cognitive thinking, which also promotes a sense of wellbeing, achievement and gives simple pleasure.
The Little Gym, however, is more of a tricky call, as a gymnastic-based programme may not immediately seem like it fits into the category of a "core" skill. However, the way I have seen The Little Gym contribute to my daughter's development and what other parents have also commented on, means that I do absolutely place it in this category.
It has been proven that undertaking certain physical activities from an early age enhances physical brain development and cognitive skills, and The Little Gym programme is one of the few structured programmes for children as early as 4 months that incorporates these enhancing movements. It also makes kids ready to pay attention at school, as they have to take specific instructions during the classes in order to perform the skills. But most importantly, the programme provides them with core muscle strength, balance and confidence that is essential for them to participate in any sports or other activities that they wish to take up in future. We have seen this, for example, in the speed in which our daughter has learnt to swim and ride her bicycle, as well as how skillfully she kicks a ball compared with her friends and peers who have not been to a programme like The Little Gym. This is especially interesting as we have not noticed that she is has any greater "natural" physical talent than any of her peers.
The final thing though, which I believe is true for any activity, is that a child needs to have fun learning, which is why it is important to spend time choosing an activity provider who understands this and offers the right environment. On our personal journey, we believe that our swimming classes provider and The Little Gym fit this bill... Though we are still seeking the right music class, which is proving harder than expected!
I'd love to hear your thoughts!
I often get feedback about The Little Gym programme around commitment, along the lines of "do I have to commit to a whole semester, or can I do drop in when convenient?".
The question is fair. Educational development programmes are an investment into your child's future, and adding up the various activities can add up to significant financial commitment. It would be great for all of us parents to be able to get the best of both worlds - a programme that would benefit our children's development and where they would actually learn something, whilst having the flexibility to make it easier on our time and our wallet.
The reality is that for any programme where you can expect your child to truly learn, develop and progress, whether it be swimming, a musical instrument, Kumon or gymnastics, it requires a commitment and sustained attendance, weekly at a minimum. Drop-in type activities have their place - they are useful for emergencies or unexpected events where we need some space to deal with things whilst having our kids taken care of - but there is no substitute for structure, regularity and repetition for children's development, and hence the required commitment in time and resources behind it.