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Children's Exercise Classes Let Youngsters Burn Energy And Learn Coordination

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DALLAS - They jump and tumble.

They dance and climb.

They romp under parachutes and chase bubbles.

And they don't even know they're learning.

Adults have formal exercise classes and disciplined regimens to get in shape. But kids have bright, padded rooms where they can let off steam while they're learning basic coordination and, as a bonus, social skills.

"She has improved a lot," says Anuradha Raghavan, 27, of Plano, Texas, whose 15-month-old daughter Ananya attends a Gymboree class in Plano. "She likes to mingle with a lot of kids now. She's become more bold."

With objects that range from plastic puffs the size of beanbags to a giant "air log" children's exercise gyms cater to many ages - from crawlers to about 12-year-olds.

"I love this place so much," says Montanya MacRall, 23, of Dallas. She is an interior design student who was at The Little Gym in Dallas with 1-year-old Jade.

Jade, an only child, was on the go the whole time, crawling and walking to other kids.

"You can see a difference. You can see how they learn, the kids interacting with other kids - it's remarkable," her mother says.

The classes feature activities designed to help children's physical and social growth. They might practice basic gymnastic moves such as cartwheels or handstands, or they might play around a circle, taking directions to walk, skip or jump.

"They love the fast pace of it, the action of it, all the different apparatuses," says Deana Prokos of Plano, as her 4-year-old son, Niko, bounces around the My Gym in Frisco.

"It's great to get out of the house and run off some of that energy. Plus, it's safe. And they have that great music. He's in school all day. Then it's afternoon (gym) class, and then dinner, and he's in bed by seven," Prokos says.

The music is geared to please both children and parents, often featuring songs from the `80s. "Karma Chameleon," for example, played in one My Gym class.

Even the smallest children can have an exercise program. At the Dallas Yoga Center, a class called "Mommies and Me" allows mothers to bring their babies along.

Instructor Lisa Hennings, herself pregnant with her third child, guides the mothers through poses that are good for them and good for the babies.

"This is part of our effort to reach the community by saying yoga is for everybody," says studio owner David Sunshine. "A lot of times, I hear from moms, `Oh my gosh, I have someplace to go with my baby that's fun and positive.'"

Those classes are casual, by necessity. If a baby needs its diaper changed, or needs to nurse, mothers are free to break away.

As the babies lie on their backs, the mothers move their legs as if bicycling, or spread and close their arms in a "so big" motion.

They hold the babies belly-down in their arms and swing them around gently, or hold the babies by the torso and lift them up over the mothers' heads.

"You've got to figure this out, pumpkin," Heather Holmes, 35, a Dallas weddings coordinator, coos to 7-week-old Madeline.

Directors at the gyms say each activity is designed with a specific goal. Chasing and popping soap bubbles, for instance, teaches eye-hand coordination. At Gymboree and The Little Gym, each week has a theme, such as "Up and Down," or "By Myself."

And praise is constant. Joel Bozarth of Dallas, co-owner of four Little Gym locations, says that when the kids learn basic karate moves, the instructors will, for example, praise the stance but encourage the child to kick higher.

Parents also like the fact that the classes are noncompetitive. The instructors are "great with the kids. They're motivating," says Jennifer Zapata, 35, a language pathologist from Frisco, Texas, whose 5-year-old daughter, Jenna, attends My Gym. "They work on their self-esteem as well as their physical skills."

Andrea Skipper of Frisco, a mother of three, is there several times a week with 4-year-old Bryce and 8-year-old Alex.

She's noticed that Bryce has better coordination, pays attention better and is stronger.

"I think it's a good thing for kids," she says. "It teaches him to do hard tasks."

"She's gained a lot of confidence," says Aimey Thompson, 34, a Dallas teacher with 13-month-old Hannah at The Little Gym. "She's learned how to get on and off our sofa without hurting herself because of climbing on these things."


(c) 2003, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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