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Bright Ideas

Kids Get Leg Up on Health and Fitness

Chloe Vruggink, left, and Corbin Ryder, right.

Corbin Ryder

Shannon Austhof

For many Michigan kids, reductions in elective physical education classes and recess time leaves them less able to move their bodies in a healthy way every day. Luckily, Gymco is a big player in the business of teaching kids how to play, and they're helping the littlest Grand Rapidians build healthy bodies and strong minds right here in West Michigan.
Run, jump, laugh, play, and most importantly, learn. Those are the big ideas behind Gymco, a gymnastics facility that has been around since 1980. What originally began in a barn behind Luther Village Retirement Home has grown into a state-of-the-art, 16,000-square-foot complex located just off East Paris Ave. in Grand Rapids, MI. But it’s not their facility that's the most impressive, it’s their dedication to education and their belief in the link between physical movement and learning.
My son is in kindergarten and when I ask him, “What was your favorite part of school today?” he always answers, “Recess.” But what may be considered a typical response for a five-year-old may soon be changing.
“Kids should be moving at least an hour a day,” says Shannon Austhof, Vice President of Programming for Gymco. Recess is a great opportunity to do that, but oddly enough, many students don’t feel comfortable participating in normal play activities. Consistent reductions in many school’s budgets year after year have forced districts to re-evaluate their elective programming, making classes like physical education available only once or twice a week. “At recess adults have a high expectation for children to ‘go play,' but students struggle when they don’t understand what the idea of playing means, or when they don’t know what their body is capable of doing,” says Austhof.
Austhof explains that students who don’t have access to structured play activities at a young age may not feel physically comfortable participating in activities during recess or any other time dedicated to being active. “You can put kids outside,” she says, “but if they don’t feel confident in themselves or comfortable with their bodies, they are not going to do anything; they roam around the playground.”
That pent-up energy is then displayed in the classroom instead of on the playground. “It’s important for children to understand that there is a time and place for that level of activity,” explains Austhof. Children who sit behind a desk the majority of the day and don’t take advantage of ‘play time’ struggle to focus their energy when it is time to work, and that’s when acting out may occur.
Over the last five years Gymco has been working with neighboring school Ridge Park Charter Academy, seeking to change that mentality and provide students with a safe and comfortable physical learning environment. In the past Austhof has conducted movement activities in kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms, focusing on hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness. For two years a group of special needs students would come to Gymco before school even started for a “Wake up-Warm up” group. There, they would focus on cross-lateral awareness, upper and lower body control, core strength, gross motor movement, and hand-eye coordination. Over time, Ridge Park noticed the confidence level of these students increasing.
Austhof explained that Patty Surman, an occupation therapist at Ridge Park, spoke with many of the teachers who had students in this morning program, and they noticed a positive increase in behavior, attitude, and test scores with this group. “Teachers noticed a reduction in ‘acting out’ within the classroom,” said Austhof. “The students were better understanding their bodies and how much space was socially acceptable to use in a class.”
An after-school program was also developed, providing students from Ridge Park, East Grand Rapids, and Lake Michigan Charter Academy with access to both gymnastics and homework time. “Many students participating in the after-school program may not have an opportunity to complete homework in a quiet space and get rid of energy in a positive way,” says Austhof.
At Gymco, kids focus on learning a physical skill and achieving a movement, which builds confidence. “It’s important for everyone to understand what their body is capable of,” says Austhof. When children know what they are able to do and how well they move, they are more apt to be active later in life. They are more confident and, on the playground, tend to participate in coordinated activities and pick-up games.
Amy Sprik, mother of two, has been taking her children to Gymco for over two years for both daytime and evening classes. She says that her children have learned tremendous balance, strength, and coordination. “I think the biggest take-away is the confidence they have gained,” says Sprik. “I want my kids to get into healthy habits and remain active, not sit in front of a TV playing video games. I think the skills they learn here are transferrable to all other sports and physical activities.”
More parents must be on the same wavelength, because Gymco is growing. They recently opened another facility called Gymco North, located near Knapp’s Corner on the northeast side of Grand Rapids. Both facilities offer daytime and evening classes, as well as special family events.
As Gymco has grown over the years, it has successfully provided West Michigan's children access to physical and social skill development and has positioned itself as part of the solution when it comes to movement education in Grand Rapids. Moving forward, Gymco wants children of all ages and ability levels to come away from their programming with a positive attitude about physical activity. Because it's not just about balance beams and trampolines; it's about getting a leg up on learning how to play.

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