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!