Thursday, November 7, 2013

Tumbling Along

Once a week, the routine at my house centers around getting little people fed, rested, and out the door for an evening of gymnastics.

We've been doing this for nearly two years since my daughter decided E1 needed an outlet for all her energy. She's the kind of kid you want to be sure of keeping insurance and a close watch on. The kind who walks off porches without guard rails, climbs outside the safety net on the trampoline, sits on tables and runs on benches. When she's a little older she'll probably want to skateboard and do a lot of tree climbing.

So Mom found a gymnastics studio and enrolled 2-year-old E1 in a parent-tot class, or in our case a grandparent-tot class. Toting E2, who was about a year old when we started, we set out on our gymnastics journey at Flyers.

That first year we were in a class with a lot of dedicated parents, a few boys and a group of girls who had all been at it at least six months longer than E1. They were a great group of role models for a pair of beginners.

At the same time, they often made me feel like what we were doing was a supreme waste of time and money, other than tiring out all three of us. Even I know the value of that for the mother of two toddlers, and it gave us somewhere to go. Since that was practically the only place I went every week, I didn't put up a fuss.

The class begins with running to warm up the body, followed by some floor stretches and jumps, then sessions on the mats, bars, and balance beam. Trying to convince a 2-year-old to follow the coach's directions and lead was the biggest struggle we frequently faced. Like the other duos, we ran together, did the floor exercises together, and then I walked the mats with her to help her with her rolls, handstands and jumps. When we moved to the bars, I did the not-too-heavy lifting to get a tiny girl up to a bar and help her with moves such as walking her hands across the bar, or pulling her feet up beside her hands. The balance beam was more lifting and help.

You can see where I wound up as tired as they did.

Much of the first few months felt very frustrating. Other than some good, cold weather exercise, I didn't see where it was getting us anywhere. Then E1 fell in love with the balance beam. I'm not sure how it happened or exactly when, but she went from walking with my arms loosely encircling her to doing it on her own. At the end of year "Gold Medal Day," which is essentially a recital, she walked the balance beam unassisted and when she fell on her second trip across, she practically earned a standing ovation by deciding to go back and start over.

It no longer felt quite so frustrating.

The second year she was one of the leaders, taking the place of those older children who had moved up. That didn't mean she stayed focused, or always remembered to stay in line for her turn, or could do the monkey walk, handstand or backward roll by herself, but she was beginning to get it. Instead of chasing her, I was chasing E2 who some nights made it her life's mission to see how much chalk she could get in, or how much candy she could find in the coach's office. At the same time, there were class members not much more into it than E2, so I didn't always feel too bad.

By the end of the year, E1 had mastered crossing the bar -- something I would not be able to do, and my support role was pretty well reduced to handstands and backwards rolls.

I guess at about that time I began wishing there was a class for adults. You think I'm joking, but I never mastered the backward roll in school. Never even came close. It was just one of those things I couldn't do that I accepted along with the list of things I wasn't allowed to do.

The "not allowed" list was pretty extensive. My dad took overprotection to a ridiculous level and still yells at children when they run. That was the first thing we weren't allowed to do. In the yard of all places, for crying out loud. Needless to say, bicycles were on that list until I was a teenager. I learned to ride a bike at 13. Roller skates were always on that list. I finally learned to skate a little in my 30s after finding a pair of in-line skates my size at Goodwill, but I'll never have the skill that I always wanted. And denied trees as a child, I climb a lot of trees now. If it weren't for dogs and walking, I'm pretty sure I would have been obese.

So yes, learning to do a backward roll and some of the simple moves E1 does with ease might help vanquish some of those "can't" ghosts that still linger. In an effort to perform my own exorcism, I do a lot of the moves with her when we're away from class, tumbling on the trampoline, or swinging from the bars on playgrounds. And I envy her the strength and confidence she already possesses at 4 that I'm not sure I ever had in my childhood.

This year we're back to square one, so to speak. E1 is in the preschool class and winging it on her own or with the help of coach and some of the older girls who help out. It's me and E2 making the rounds and I'm back to just surviving and often wanting to quit as I'm corralling my tot and toting E3 at the same time. The interest E2 took in her older sister's activities, however, means she can already do a lot of the moves. If she can stay in line and focused. I'm already dreading round 3 with the baby in a couple of years.

At the same time as the outings exhaust and frustrate me, I don't want to stop. I know how important it is to encourage activity and to help kids find something they enjoy, whether it is eventually gymnastics or another team sport, an organized class like karate or dance, or something they do on their own like skateboarding or yoga. Unlike when I was a child, when books and Saturday morning TV were about the only alternatives, kids today have 24/7 TV and video games, either of which can prove to be a fatal attraction if they don't enjoy some kind of exercise as well. Add to that the burden of school work in a few years, and the time it requires and takes from physical activity, compounded by working parents who are hard pressed to cook meals, monitor snacks and run kids to events, and it's no wonder our nation's children are so often overweight.

I don't know that I'm getting any gold medal contenders started with our weekly trips to gymnastics, but I do know that I'm encouraging them to be active. While it's harder than sitting in front of a couple of hours of Nickelodeon or even letting them wreck the playroom again, I know in the long run it's better for all of us.

In the years to come they'll have the strength, confidence, and yes, balance, that they learn in these early gymnastics classes to use in taking on whatever activity they choose to participate in. And I'll not only burn a few calories by helping out, but know I did something important as well.

And I might even learn to do a backwards roll -- if I don't hurt myself.

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