Why small children need gym classes

Photograph: Marlene Welburn, Director of Little Gym, Chiswick. Photograph by James Willcocks

Marlene Welburn runs The Little Gym on Hartington Rd. She reckons even quite small children need gym classes. In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, she would say that wouldn’t she? After all she sells gym classes.

Surely small children get all the exercise they need naturally, because they love to run around and climb and play? Well that apparently is where you’d be wrong. While that was the case when we were young, she told me, now there is a huge problem with young children not getting enough exercise because they are ‘containerised’.

This concept is new to me, though when she explained, it made sense. Small children are taken from cot to high chair, from high chair to playpen so they’re safe while their parent / carer does chores, from playpen to buggy or car seat, and what carer wouldn’t prefer to sit in a nice warm cafe chatting with their mates over a decaff soya latte with their charge safely strapped down in their buggy, rather than freezing their backside on a metal bench in a windswept playground while the children ran around and climbed on things?

The Little Gym is on Hartingdon Rd, by Chiswick Bridge, in the modern building that also houses Bright Horizons nursery and Roko Gym. Unlike the drafty church hall experiences of previous generations, the current cohort of small children have in The Little Gym a custom built, specially designed environment with loads of brightly coloured, soft padded space to run around in and throw themselves down upon, and a flop area for parents, rather like one of those airport lounge areas which you can only get into if you’re flying business class, with comfy sofas and a help yourself coffee machine and even a microwave, so you can bring baby gloop and heat it up to feed one child while the other is doing their class.

Opened in 2007 on the ground floor of the building, The Little Gym expanded to the upper floor in 2016, so while most of the gym classes are downstairs, there is a second area, available to hire for parties, where children do martial arts classes on a padded floor on one side of the hallway and dance classes in the mirrored dance studio on the other. It’s all very light and airy and spacious.

Some 1,200 children per week enjoy classes here, ranging from sessions for the under threes to take part in with their parent / carer, to themed sessions, be it music and rhythm or pirates, for age groups up to 12. “The mums are very organised” says Marlene. “They come and they’re feeding one child and doing homework with another while a third child is doing their class”. The dads are a different matter, often to be found, especially at the weekend, sprawled on a sofa, dead to the world, thankful for an hour’s remission.

There are some very famous dads who come. No names no pack drill, but one very embarrassed trainer found herself coaching one of the world’s most famous rock drummers on the importance of rhythm, in a group with his young child.

Going back to the containerisation of babies and small children, it is a recognised ‘syndrome’, says Marlene. Pediatric specialists use it to refer to a collection of movement, behaviour and other developmental problems that result from babies being constrained to a ‘container’ for increased periods of time in a given day. Although these containers are useful in helping to keep the baby safe from accidents, equipment such as baby walkers and bouncy swings as well as playpens and pushchairs, restrict a child’s freedom of movement and stops them learning through movement in the way they would naturally.

Marlene sees it all the time. Children can’t physically cross their mid line. They can’t wrap their arms around their body from one side to the other and they can’t bend right over so their upper body hangs down below their waist. They are not developing the core strength they need to be able to sit and do task when they reach school, she says.

“We were more adventurous” she says, sweetly including me in the same generation as herself. “Parents now are more nervous about letting their children move about freely. They just don’t have the same freedom of movement that we did when we were little”. As for electronic child minders, in their many and various forms, don’t get her started.

Marlene is South African, from a small town in the Cape called George, on the ‘Garden Route’. As a child, her life was all about sport: gymnastics, swimming, hockey, and she sees gymnastics as important as a basis for all sports. It develops the muscles and gives children the flexibility to go to do well in their chosen sport, or just to live a healthier life. As a teenager she says gymnastics also gave her resilience and self-discipline and a sense of purpose that probably stopped her from “going off the rails”.

Studying at Pretoria Technicon on a scholarship in the era of changeover from apartheid, she studied Sports Science while developing her skills as a track athlete. She began to be interested in child development and how play affects the development of a child’s motor skills. At home in the Cape she started a business going in to schools with a van load of sports equipment, teaching kids sports with a retired sports psychologist. “I learned a lot from him” she says. She was also doing “high end” gymnastics coaching and judging competitions.

If she hadn’t broken up with her boyfriend, she might still be there, but after a relationship break up she sold the business and came to Europe, met a nice Englishman, and here she remains.

“I notice how stressful life is for kids in London” she says. “If I can give a child an hour of fun without all the crap at home – homework, studying, parents arguing – I find that hugely satisfying”. The emphasis at The Little Gym is on fun, which is one of the reasons why she chose it out of the many job offers she received. It’s not about competitiveness and achievement; it’s all about creativity, imagination and fun. The kids are not climbing on climbing frames and bars, but in magical forests. They’re not balancing on gym equipment, but on the book of a ship ploughing through the waves.

She also likes that the classes are accessible to all in terms of physicality. Their detailed lesson plans are written by experts. Her staff are trained by occupational therapists on how to deal with children with conditions such as autism and dyspraxia and they set store by the sensitivity and warmth of their teaching style.

They take children from as young as four months. Parents are always surprised by what quite a young baby can do, she says. Many of the children who come started when they were four months old and are still coming as seven year olds. The ratio of children to adults is 6-1 for 3-6 year olds and 7-1 for 7-12 year olds.

Classes continue throughout the year, but with special sessions for school holidays. Children can come to holiday camps for three hour sessions in the morning, four hour sessions in the afternoons, or all day, with lunch club. The sessions are structured to include art and craft sessions and story time as well as gym activities, so they feel like they’ve had a good, fun and productive day, but it’s not like boot camp!

Cost

The Little Gym charges a £50 annual membership fee, but not if you have a Chiswick Calendar Club Card.

Charges for sessions:

Bugs 10 Class Pass (4-10 months) – £170
Gymnastics & Karate Classes (10 months – 12 years) £88 per month
Dance classes (3 – 12 years) – £52 per month

Membership benefits include:

  • Three Tumble and Tea sessions per week – supervised 90 minute free play sessions for under 3’s, as long as you attend one class – effectively giving you up to 5.5 hours in the gym per week, making The Little Gym much cheaper than many other classes available.
  • Practice Time Sessions during the school holidays and weekends for over 3’s. These are structured and supervised sessions to practice essential gymnastics skills the children have learnt in class each week.
  • Discounted holiday camps and birthday parties for members
  • Refreshments in the lobby
  • Events (for example the Izzy Judd workshop as well as regular parenting talks)
  • Free make up classes if you can’t make your usual weekly class.