As Amy Smith sees it, her 2-year-old daughter, Alexis, is learning a lot more than coordination in her weekly gymnastics-for-tots class at Medford's Rogue Valley Family YMCA.
"She gets the opportunity to meet new friends and interact. It's not just gymnastics, it's learning colors, numbers and taking instructions," says Smith of the new weekly class that debuted in October, thanks to a donation of equipment and funds by Jackson County Physical Therapy.
Four classes are offered on Monday afternoons, each for a different age group. In the youngest class — for 1- and 2-year-olds — kids learn basic coordination skills doing forward rolls and climbing over and under barriers.
The teacher calls out instructions, such as "stand inside the star" or "jump into the circle." Numbers drawn on the mat serve as a hopscotch drill. Even the smallest children learn to place their own hands and feet on felt ones arranged strategically to encourage them to align themselves in positions that teach coordination. Each child runs over the padded mat from obstacle to obstacle, eager to complete the assigned task.
In the same class, Eagle Point mom Stacy Fields watches from the sidelines as her 1-year-old son, Robert, trots from station to station on the obstacle course. He's completely focused on the task at hand, wide-eyed and laughing.
"I like the equipment — stuff you can't do at home. His color and shape recognition are improving, and he's learning to jump. He's also learning to follow directions from somebody else," says Fields.
The objective of these classes is to teach gymnastics as a form of whole-child development.
"We are focusing on what is developmentally and level-appropriate. They learn not only coordination, but self-reliance and self-confidence," says instructor Alicia Aldrich. "With the youngest ones, we have them going over, under and around obstacles, using shapes — so education is mixed in with gymnastics."
Aldrich's parents started her in gymnastics classes before her second birthday in an attempt to help her overcome coordination problems. She never stopped. Aldrich was a competitive gymnast for 11 years and has been coaching in the Rogue Valley for the past five. Although she has lived in Southern Oregon for most of her life, she has studied in Houston with Bela Karolyi, long-time coach of the U.S. National and Olympic teams.
Now with three children of her own, Aldrich has had ample opportunity to experiment with selecting the right skills for each age group. In the class for 5- and 6-year-olds, students are introduced to the balance beam, though this beam is 3 inches — rather than 3 feet — off the floor. Because there's no fall to worry about, these budding gymnasts aren't afraid to walk backward on the beam or hold the bar with their hands while pushing off with their feet.
A mini-tramp and horizontal bar allow the kids to experiment with bouncing, hanging and swinging. And with a padded mat, tumbling is far more fun than scary.
Classes have between four and six students. This represents a compromise between expensive, individual lessons and larger classes where the opportunity for individual attention is difficult.
"I wanted to create an affordable experience because it's often expensive. I want to get back to basics, getting them comfortable with being upside-down and backwards — basic coordination," Aldrich explains.
Though both boys and girls are enrolled in these classes, Medford mom Jennyfer Stillman has found extra reasons for girls to enroll in these classes, which is just what she was hoping to find for her 5-year-old daughter, Hannah.
"Any opportunity she has to interact positively with an adult, especially in an authority position, is great," says Stillman. "There is way too little opportunity for girls to be in their own bodies. We have to encourage them to be proud of themselves, feel good about themselves."