A few months ago we enrolled Sam in a Little Gym class. My husband started coming to the sessions with us because I couldn’t carry Sam through a lot of the activities as part of our turn-over of Sam responsibilities. Yet after watching several sessions, he felt that it was no different from the Gymboree classes we used to attend. I on the other hand, having done the research and the classes (and once upon a time, I did teach part-time in Gymboree), see the difference. As a spectator it’s easy to assume the similarities, but having done both, I feel I can give you a glimpse of their differences for your benefit as well.
Gymboree Play and Music. The premise of Gymboree I believe is to learn through play. A lot of the Play Class activities involve building imagination and creativity, first and foremost. The physical and motor development that you can get from the different equipment set-ups (that change every 2-3 weeks), I feel is something that comes as a natural consequence from all the activities. Then there’s the use of the playful colorful Gymbo mascot, which makes it very entertaining and kid-friendly. Who doesn’t love kisses from Gymbo the clown?
When Sam was younger we would attend the Play and Art classes. In particular she loved the parts of the class where they play with the parachute, bubbles and then sing and dance with Gymbo. We used to go as well for the free play sessions, where as a member you’re entitled to use the equipment outside of class time so she could run around and explore.
I feel that Gymboree’s disadvantage is the inconsistent quality of the teachers. While I have seen and participated in classes led by really great teachers, in general I feel that a lot of the other teachers are not as experienced with the children as they should be (here in Chapel Hill as well as in Manila). I myself was allowed to teach without any child development requirements (though I hope that I still did my students justice!) which is something I would expect of teachers in developmental classes. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad to have been hired! As a mom though investing in my daughter’s development, I feel strongly about the teacher being able to teach both the children and the parents. I would want the teacher to add value to my child’s life, and be able to tell me why this activity or that activity is better for her at this stage in her life (and what we can do at home to further supplement this). That of course, is just my personal thought and opinion on the matter.
The Little Gym. The Little Gym uses parachutes, music and bubbles in their classes too, however I believe the main difference is that they aim to develop motor and social skills founded on gymnastics (ie physical development comes first). The “play equipment” alone is composed of balance beams and trampolines, which is very very different from the set-up found in Gymboree. In the class that we attend, the teacher educates sets up groundwork for skills like forward rolling, balancing and swinging on bars, and teaches the parents as well how to properly spot your child. The creativity portion comes in the games associated with some physical skills. The Little Gym also promotes independence more, because after a certain time they encourage the parents to stand back and let the children learn the skills on their own. Eventually the goal is to get them to classes where the parents aren’t as involved in the actual session.
With respect to the teachers, I feel that they are a little bit more trained and experienced — well, they would have to be if they’re teaching gymnastic skills. The teacher in our class demonstrates the skill of the week (which gives me a little bit more confidence that she knows what she’s talking about). The other thing I like about the teaching staff at the Little Gym that we go to would be how involved I feel the teacher is in Sam’s individual development. The fact that we have an action shot sent via email or even a questionnaire that I filled out about what skill we’d like them to focus on, makes me as a parent feel like they really want to ensure Sam gets the most out of the program.
My only complaint is that outside the class we attend, there is no opportunity to use the equipment as a form of “free play”. This makes it difficult to reinforce the skills Sam learns in class because when we come home, there’s no high bar for her to swing on. So it’s taking a while for her to appreciate what she learns and become comfortable with it.
Over-all I would say that I would still use Gymboree for younger children (maybe until age 3 when they start exhibiting certain specific interests). Starting out at Gymboree worked well for us because it was a friendly, baby-safe environment where Sam could build her muscular strength and social skills. We moved onto Little Gym because I noticed she would rather climb and jump and roll on the Gymboree equipment, instead of participate in the actual class activities. Plus, she started pre-school where some of their activities overlap. Now at the Little Gym, she happily tries to copy the teacher when the skills are introduced. As a younger member of the class though (their bracketing differs from Gymboree where she would always end up as one of the older ones), she still needs my help in trying things out. I’m not too worried because I feel later on the independence will come. We’ve noticed she’s gotten good at jumping (or bouncing), balancing, climbing and doing all sorts of physical activities without any fear. In a way, The Little Gym develops a different aspect of skills but at the same time, still compliments the things she can get from school.
Going to Gymboree with Sam for a time was (and still is) fun because it was also all about bonding and strengthening our relationship. Now at the Little Gym, where (slowly but surely) she is learning to do things on her own, I realize what a little big girl she’s turning out to be (sniff!).