10 Reasons Why Toddler Gymnastics Is A Must For Your Child, Part 1
Our friends at Jackrabbit Class software posted an article by Jill Purdy about the 10 reasons that gymnastics lessons are what toddlers need. At EVOLVEkids, we have a strong focus on toddler gymnastics and preschool gymnastics, so we are in solid agreement with Jill and our partners at Jackrabbit. What we thought, though, is that you might appreciate it if we drilled down into those reasons, and really explained why toddler gymnastics is a must for your child.
As there is a lot of territory to cover, I decided to divide this into a two-part article. The first part will discuss the physical benefits of toddler gymnastic classes, and the second part will discuss the mental, social, and emotional benefits.
But before we get into those reasons, let me introduce myself and my gym. I’m Heidi Lawless, the Owner and Lead Instructor at EVOLVEkids, a fun-focused gymnastic, tumbling, and cheer facility located in Morris, IL. I have been teaching children gymnastics, tumbling, and cheer for the past 40 years, and I have been a gym owner since 1995.
My philosophy has always been that active children grow up to be fit and healthy, and I’ve seen that borne out time and again. And it’s particularly satisfying when I have former students, who are now adults, bring their children to me for class because of how much of an impact gymnastics had on THEIR lives.
So lets jump into the first 5 reasons and see how toddler gymnastic classes can impact YOUR child’s life!
Vestibular system; well that’s a mouthful to start out with! The vestibular system is simply our sense of balance, and according to child development expert, Gill Connell, we actually have 7 senses, not just 5, and our sense of balance is one of those extra senses. And it’s a pretty important one at that as it regulates every activity we do. As adults, the vestibular system is automatic for us, but as Gill empathically points out in the Moving Smart Blog its “NOT automatic for kids”. She goes on to say:
Have you ever noticed when a child sits in a chair he fidgets around? Yes, sometimes he has to go to the bathroom, but quite often, what you’re seeing is his vestibular system at work with his body, helping him adjust himself to feel in balance. In fact, whenever a child moves (on or off the chair, indoors or out, fast or slow, right-side up or upside down, etc., etc.), his inner ear reacts to and records those movements, giving his brain important information about the body’s orientation at any given moment. Over time and with lots of different kinds of movement, his brain will begin to determine what is and isn’t “in balance” for him.
Before I get into the benefits of gymnastics for the vestibular system, lets discuss the 2nd point on the Jackrabbit list, and the 7th sense that Gill Connell discusses.
The proprioception system, or our intuitive sense of space and position, goes hand in hand with the vestibular system. The vestibular keeps us upright, and the proprioception acts as our navigation system.
Like with the vestibular, the proprioception system is automatic now for us as adults, but it is a sense that a child must develop. And as Gill Connell points out, “We can guide him, but only to a point. That’s because the only way for a child to truly know his own body is to use it.” She goes on to say,
And yes, that includes bumping into furniture, tripping over his own feet, pushing too hard, and all those other things we think of as kid-clumsy. It’s just his body and brain working together to learn about his environment using his proprioceptive senses to pave the way.
Now if you’ve ever spoken with me, I’m certain that we’ve never discussed in specific the vestibular or proprioception systems. I’m a teacher, not a scientist. But I’m also certain that every conversation I have at EVOLVEkids, with a Mom (or a Dad) about their toddler, is always focused on these two systems.
I can think of no better place than a professional gymnastics facility, with a designated area for toddlers with colorful soft-play skill shapes, and specifically designed toddler gymnastic equipment, for a toddler to start safely developing their sense of balance and their ability to navigate their world.
At EVOLVEkids, I’m often asked if we offer “play time” classes for toddlers. And while our Parent/Tot classes, and our Crawler Open Gym & Toddler Open Gym, are certainly playful and fun, I think you can see how critical it is for children to develop their sense of balance and navigation. And much like it is fun and exciting for a teen to learn how to drive, we treat teaching your toddler how to motor about with the same seriousness that a driver’s instructor does.
I know, from having taught thousands of kids gymnastics, that developing these two senses is foundational to children growing up to be fit and active.
(I’m going to reorder the Jackrabbit list to stay focused on the physical benefits of gymnastics for your toddler, but as I mentioned earlier, we’ll go in depth in Part 2 of this article as to the mental, social, and emotional benefits.)
Onto our third reason, strength.
When people think of gymnastics strength, they typically envision a female gymnast impossibly whipping thru an uneven bars routine or a male gymnast rippling with muscles performing an iron cross on the rings.
But that’s not the strength we are discussing when talking about your toddler. What we are focused on in toddler gymnastics is building functional strength and developing gross motor skills.
In the first couple months of a baby’s life, they are learning to meet the milestones of lifting their heads, rolling over, then sitting up independently. As a Mom, I can remember these moments in my kids' lives like they were yesterday, even though its been more than two decades now.
When we first see children in the gym is when they are at the milestone of crawling. As this article from Zero to Three notes, crawling is pretty complex:
Between six and ten months old, most babies are really starting to move. At first they may get up on all fours and rock back and forth—like a rocket at countdown, waiting to take off. But unlike a rocket ship, little ones might stay in “countdown” mode for a weeks before they are ready to start moving. The process of learning to crawl is actually pretty complex. Babies need to coordinate the movement of their arms and legs, and develop the muscle strength in their arms, shoulders, and legs to support their weight.
The article also notes that you need to “make sure your baby has space to explore that is safe and supervised.”
What’s great about a Parent/Tot class or a Crawler Open Gym that we offer at EVOLVEkids, is that we not only have a space that is safe and supervised, but it’s a space that has been DESIGNED to be a safe environment to develop the muscle strength that your crawler needs.
And as your child moves thru the gross motor developmental milestones of standing, walking, running, and jumping, a toddler gymnastic class or toddler open gym continues to be the perfect environment for them to safely take those first steps & falls, first runs & tumbles.
The 4th reason for toddler gymnastic classes is flexibility. Flexibility, as defined in this article from UC Davis Health, is “the ability of a joint or series of joints to move through an unrestricted, pain free range of motion.”
Before we discuss flexibility, I should mention something that is probably readily apparent to you already. All the physical benefits I’ve discussed so far, sense of balance, navigation, strength, and now flexibility are all closely related and interconnected. As a gymnastics instructor, I never focus on one of these benefits in a vacuum; gymnastics is a holistic activity that addresses the entirety of the child’s health.
Barring serious developmental issues, most children are going acquire balance, navigation, and strength as they grow older. Gymnastics certainly is the ideal path to hasten your child’s progress, but it would be silly to suggest that your child must do gymnastics in order to gain balance, navigation, or strength.
Flexibility, though, is not a physical benefit that accrues with age. The average child is not going to be just naturally flexible. Actually, with kids growing up in a world where more time is being spent immobile in front of electronic screens, I would say that the average kid is probably rather inflexible (and that’s been my practical experience as well).
You can think of flexibility as kind of like the body’s 401K account. The more time that is spent early on gaining flexibility, the greater the benefit the child will reap as their body grows.
Dr. Paul Stricker discusses the various effects of growth, change in body composition, and flexibility in this article at HealthyChildren.org. In the article, he is primarily addressing the changes at puberty, but one statement he made really stood out to me: “kids who are already overweight tend to remain overweight into adolescence and adulthood”. He then goes on to say that “having good flexibility may help some athletes self-select into certain sports such as swimming, diving, gymnastics, tennis, figure skating, wrestling, or martial arts.”
In a broader context, he is making the case that flexible children “self-select” into leading healthier lives as teens and into adulthood.
To return to my earlier analogy, it is imperative that you fund your child’s “401K body account”. And one of the best investments you can make is to get your toddler involved in gymnastics and get them started early on the path to a lifetime of flexibility.
Before I move on to our final reason in Part 1 of this article, I do want to mention two relatively rare muscle tone conditions: hypotonia & hypertonia. According to an article at Pathways.org, hypotonia is where a child has low muscle tone and too much flexibility, and hypertonia is the opposite where the child has increased muscle tone and restricted flexibility.
These are conditions that your doctor will diagnose and prescribe a treatment approach for, but know that if your child has either condition that gymnastics is often a recommended therapy for both hypotonia and hypertonia.
Let’s wrap up Part 1 with our final physical reason why toddler gymnastic classes are a must for your child.
#5: Active Play
First I should define what is active play and then explain why active play is important for toddlers.
Active play includes any activity that involves moderate to vigorous bursts of high energy. Put simply, if it raises their heart rate and makes them "huff and puff", it’s active play. For babies, active play is obviously less intense. It includes activities such as reaching out to touch something, rolling over or balancing in a sitting position.
And they go on to say, in their fact sheet, why its so important:
Physical activity is vital for a child’s development and lays the foundation for a healthy and active life. And when it comes to kids, the best form of physical activity is play!
Look the reality is that “being active” is really no longer the default setting for most Americans. We have constructed a world that entices us to be immobile and tethered to our electronic devices. Sad as it is, children left to their own devices are really going to be left to their own devices: their iPhone, their Xbox, their… whatever the next shiny object is.
To combat this trend, and it is a trend that is getting worse not better, you have to take active measures to make sure your toddler is being active.
One of the great things about a Parent/Tot class or a Toddler Open Gym is that you get to participate in active play with your child. You are starting to create a positive habit of treating exercise as fun, but you are also telling your child that you value playing with them as well. What’s the old saying, “a family that plays together stays together”. It might be a cliché, but its also true. Don’t take my word for it, but please do take the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parenting is not easy so I recommend you find as many positive allies as you can. Toddler gymnastic classes and open gyms are structurally positive activities for kids, and you have the added benefit of finding like minded parents who believe that active kids make for fun and fit kids.
Well that’s the first 5 from Jackrabbit’s and author Jill Purdy’s list of 10 reasons why gymnastic lessons are what toddlers need. I can’t wait to get started on the last 5 reasons which delve into the mental, social, and emotional benefits.
In the meantime, you shouldn’t wait to get started on getting your toddler involved with gymnastics. Clearly, if you are in the Morris, IL area or greater Joliet, greater southwest Chicagoland area, we would love to have you join us at EVOLVEkids. But around the United States, there are literally thousands of USA Gymnastic Member Gyms where you should be able to find a gymnastics program tailored specifically for toddlers or preschoolers.
So get to it, and after you’ve joined the legion of parents who are embracing toddler gymnastics as the vehicle to promote active kids, I encourage you to share your experience on our EVOLVEkids Facebook page.
I hope to see you soon again, be it in Part 2, on our Facebook page, or in person at EVOLVEkids. Till then…BE ACTIVE!
EVOLVEkids is a USA Gymnastics Member Gym, USTA Club Member, and USASF Member Club located in Morris, IL. Heidi Lawless is the Owner & Lead Instructor at EVOLVEkids, and has been teaching children gymnastics, tumbling, and cheer for 40 years.