Gymnastics is a full-body workout, promoting cardiovascular health, strength, balance, and coordination, as well as flexibility, speed, and power. But did you know research has shown that participation in gymnastics also may enhance reading scores in elementary school-aged children?
According to a 1998 study by Ralph R. Barrett, an educator and gymnastics coach in Florida, gymnastics and gymnastics-like instruction—such as early movement classes—help forge neurological pathways responsible for reading readiness and comprehension. It also helps develop problem-solving skills and increase attention spans.
“I do believe that my academic success was due in part from the lessons I learned through gymnastics, such as time management, goal setting, and the importance of continuing education,” says Shannon Miller, whose seven Olympic and nine World Championship medals make her the most decorated American gymnast, male or female, in history.
After retiring from Olympic competition in 2000, Miller earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Houston, followed by a law degree from Boston College. “Just like gymnastics, there is always more to learn,” adds Miller, 35, mother of a 2-year-old son, in a recent email interview with Baltimore's Child. “Of course, I also believe that my success in gymnastics was due to the balance I kept between education and athletics. My parents made no secret that school came first, whether I was training for the Olympic Games or not.”
In addition to the physical and educational benefits, gymnastics is fun! Not only do kids learn to fly through the air with grace and agility, but, if they stick with the sport, they also can make friends they often keep for life. Competitive gymnasts have the opportunity to travel to new places, and many attend their first sleepawaycamp with their teammates.
So, if you find yourself with a fearless, active preschooler or elementary school-aged child on your hands—or theirs, for that matter—gymnastics might just be the sport for him or her.
Are You Ready to Tumble?
How a child begins with gymnastics mostly depends on how old he or she is. Toddlers and preschoolers are still learning colors, shapes, and gross motor skills, so gymnastics programsgeared toward them tend to focus on early-development movement, like jumping on colored mats, crawling over obstacles, and swaying side to side. Basic gymnastics skills—doing handstands against the wall, swinging from a bar, and balancing on a beam, for example—might be mixed in with more ordinary physical challenges, like stepping over cones. Those classes typically are coeducational and use smaller, toddler-sized equipment.
School-aged students, on the other hand, can sign up for the USA Gymnastics (USAG) Junior Olympic Program, which offers classes at levels 1 through 10. Levels 1 through 4 are developmental levels. In levels 1 and 2, beginning gymnasts learn skills such as handstands, cartwheels, and forward rolls. In levels 3 and 4, they progress to backward rolls into a push-up position on the floor, stretch jumps on the balance beam, and handstands on the vault. At some gyms, gymnasts also may begin competing at Level 4.
School-aged gymnasts are separated by gender. Boys learn skills on the parallel bars, rings, high bar, and pommel horse, while girls learn skills on the uneven bars and balance beam. Both genders participate in the floor exercise and the vault.
See How They Roll
Before enrolling your child in a gymnastics program, do some research. To start, search the Internet for local facilities or check the Baltimore's Child directory online. When you have narrowed down your options, visit each gym and take a tour with a staff member.
Ask the instructors about their certifications. All teachers and coaches, ideally, should be first aid- and CPR-certified, at minimum. Instructors should also have taken Fundamentals of Gymnastics, a free course for professional members offered through USAG University. Other certifications, via USAG, include Junior Olympic Development Coach, Junior Olympic Team Coach, and National Coach, for competitive teams, and Developmental Teacher, Advanced Teacher, and Director, for recreational programs. Some preschool-level instructors may also have a Kinder Accreditation for Teachers, or a Preschool Fundamentals Theory Certification, older USAG certifications that are now part of the recreational education track.
Daniel Chan, a San Francisco-based magician and former gymnastics instructor, further recommends spending some time in the gym at a program, beyond a tour, before signing up your child for classes. “Watch other classes and observe the teachers,” he suggests. “See more demonstrations and competitions before enrolling to make sure this is right for [your child].”
Your involvement as a parent, and financial commitment, will vary depending on your child's age and skill level. For children in developmental programs, classes in the Baltimore area are, on average, $15 to $17 each, with tuition paid every eight to twelve weeks. Parents of toddlers must participate with their children, while students ages 3 and older can take classes by themselves.
The Next Level
In the USAG Junior Olympic Program, after mastering basic developmental skills, gymnasts ages 6 and older have the option to move into a competitive program.
At the compulsory levels, 4 to 6, they learn skills such as back handsprings on the floor and fly-aways on the bars, performing the same routines as their opponents in each event. Once a gymnast competes through the compulsory levels, he or she can move on to the optional levels, 7 to 10. The difficulty of the skills performed at those levels increases exponentially. At levels 7 and 8, USAG does not allow extremely difficult moves like double front tucks. Levels 9 and 10, however, have no such restrictions, only limits on the number of extremely difficult tricks a gymnast may attempt in a routine. Gymnasts create their own routines at those levels, and, except at Level 7, are judged on composition as well as skills execution.
After high school graduation, many Level 10 gymnasts go on to compete at the collegiate level.
A League of Our Own
The majority of gymnasts who enroll in a competitive program do so in the USAG Junior Olympic Program. In Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, however, aspiring gymnasts have the option to compete in the Mason Dixon Gymnastics League, based in Bowie, which is designed to be less intensive than the USAG program.
Mason Dixon gymnasts compete in six competitions a year instead of twelve, are judged more leniently, and have more difficulty restrictions at each of the five competitive levels. They also may choose to compete in individual events instead of as an all-around competitor.
Gymnasts starting in the Mason Dixon League may move over to the USAG program, provided they meet USAG proficiency and age requirements. However, while a member of the Mason Dixon League, gymnasts are prohibited from participating in any other league during the Mason Dixon season, with the exception of school-sponsored teams.
Whether your child just wants to learn to turn cartwheels, or is eager to take on the competition, there's a gymnastics option out there. Call your local gym to learn more.