As London and the rest of the world enjoys the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, thousands of kids across the nation are signing up and sticking with games, classes and competitions all their own.
With a proven connection between movement and learning, gymnastics provides serious fun and serious power.
It's not surprising then, that many parents opt to enroll their children early in programs that provide valuable tools for success in all stages of life.
With programs for children starting as young as four months and lasting well into the teen years, students develop skills in not only physical discipline but also mental dexterity, forming positive habits they can carry with them the rest of their lives.
"If you start young, you're more likely to stick with it," said Ashley Morengo, program director at The Little Gym in Tulsa.
A common thread among many movement-based programs is the aim to develop strength, balance, flexibility and coordination -- four core principles the sport of gymnastics tackles at all levels.
To best serve students, programs are often grouped according to both age and skill level, allowing children to grow at their own pace while still being challenged.
Beyond athletic prowess, the benefits of the skills learned in these programs are often reflected in increased performance in school. Students learn motivation, determination, and knowledge retention.
Early education gymnastic classes offer activities to develop both gross and fine motor skills as well as engaging the little ones in what is often their first real social interaction with children their own age.
"It's not just how to follow directions, it's how to learn, listen. It's life skills for school and beyond," said Tina Miller of Tulsa World of Gymnastics (TWOG).
Perhaps its most utilized asset, gymnastics also provides a solid foundation on which other sports-skills can be developed.
"Parents think, 'What sport am I going to get my kid into?' Gymnastics is a good building block for all other sports," said Morengo.
"A lot of times, students will go into track and field, soccer -- the big one for boys, of course: football," Miller said. "Parents recognize these successes are because of the early foundations learned through gymnastics."
Since 1976, the Bradshaw's family has owned and operated TWOG, which has laid a foundation for success through a variety of fun and challenging programs. For its effort, TWOG has been honored by USA Gymnastics as one of the top gymnastics programs in the nation.
The "Mommy and Me" class is a great introduction for parent and child into the world of gymnastics and to the programs offered at TWOG.
Once a Tulsa leader for competitive gymnastics, the organization recently decided to lock up its trophy case to focus on programs that benefit a larger number of students.
While the upcoming season will mark the first in its 35-year history the program will not be involved at the competitive level, Miller, who is the daughter of founders Wayne and Linda Bradshaw, feels this will only increase what they can offer students.
"You don't have to be at the competitive level to reap the benefits of a gymnastics program," Miller explained.
TWOG believes if children can learn gymnastics they can do anything.
Programs offered do still prepare students in each of the Olympic events, including vault, balance beam, uneven bars, as well as floor exercise.
TWOG also has classes developed specifically for home school organizations and offers special needs programs.
"That is a need, it's an area we're really getting more into," Miller said of classes designed to engage and enhance the minds of special needs children.
"We have an autistic boys' class on Tuesday evenings and it's amazing the progress they've made in one year's time."
Involvement in a physical fitness program can help develop motor skills in those disabilities by challenging brain development through movement while also encouraging physical fitness and social growth.
Tulsa World of Gymnastics isn't the only one who has pushed competition aside in favor of more devoted instruction.
The Little Gym in Tulsa promotes "serious fun" for kids. Originally opened in Bellvue, Washington in 1976, the franchised gym first opened a Tulsa location about 14 years ago. Though competitive play was the resounding ideal of the time, founder Robin Wes had a different vision in mind and opened the gym as a place children could grow socially, emotionally and intellectually while studying physical fitness. To date, The Little Gym chooses to place emphasis on effort and not awards.
The Little Gym offers classes in gymnastics for kids from four months to 12 years as well as offering opportunities to pursue sports skills, dance and karate.
Regardless of your class of choice, programs offered at The Little Gym have a particular rhythm to them.
"Our three-tier program is what sets us apart," said Morengo.
This three-dimensional learning provides kids with the skills for physical fitness, brain development, as well as life skills such as listening and leadership.
"We do ABCs, counting, and other brain boosting activities. The social aspect is also very important," Morengo said.
One of the biggest goals of The Little Gym is to promote confidence through encouragement and individual achievement. With a little push, the program aims to let children discover their own motivation and capability and allows them to move at their own pace.
The Little Gym offers different parent/child classes for early development (4 months to 3 years), a variety of co-ed gymnastics courses for ages 3 to 6 years, and older kids are placed in gender and skill-level specific courses to best meet the needs of the individual. These classes are offered for students through age 12.
It might be surprising to learn that SSB! Kids, which now occupies a 20,000 square foot center in Broken Arrow, came from much humbler beginnings. Founder Priscilla Godi was a schoolteacher with a commitment to fitness when rumblings of the program first began in her own backyard and garage in 1991.
Though their program has evolved, their mission has remained the same.
"Our philosophy is to develop faith, character, physical discipline and confidence as [kids] master the sport," said Cindy Tygart, office manager at SSB! Kids.
Bars, beams and trampolines -- classes available for children 18 months and up -- give kids a chance to work on an array of skills including classes geared specifically toward gymnastics as well as cheerleading, tumbling, swim and karate.
Many of the skills taught by SSB coaches are used to train students for the competitive level.
SSB! Kids is home to Tulsa Boys Gymnastics, a competitive program that boasts some recent successes.
"National champions come out of our T3 class," said Tygart. The team recently won three gold medals at the Junior Olympics.
While gymnastics remains a female dominated arena, Tygart says she has seen growth in the boys program in recent years.
"I have a son who is a tumbler, and each year we bring more and more boys into the program."
Twisters Gymnastics in Broken Arrow offers classes suited for children ages 3-17.
Programs range from pre-school developmental gymnastics to competitive teams, with beginner level courses designed to build strength and coordination.
Students wishing to go on to a competitive level can choose between the less-intense recreational team or, for those with the drive and the time, another option is available.
"Our more competitive gymnasts are in the gym five to six days a week," said Jennifer Harrington, program director and head coach at Twisters. "This year we have five gymnasts on Team Oklahoma that will compete at the 2012 AAU Junior Olympic Games in Houston."
Impressive, but blue ribbons and trophies aren't the true motivation behind the training provided at Twisters.
"Our goal isn't to build Olympians," said Harrington. "[It's] to teach children the fundamentals of physical fitness that can be carried throughout their life."
Going for the Gold
For the more competitive, Oklahoma Gold Teams based in Edmond provides focused gymnastics programs, training teams and individuals for the Junior Olympic Competitive Program and the TAG Competitive Gymnastics Program. Mark Williams, current Men's Gymnastics coach for the University of Oklahoma, once served on the coaching staff at Oklahoma Gold. Williams went on to coach future Olympic athletes, including Jonathan Horton, a 2012 hopeful in U.S. men's gymnastics.
Whether you're gold-medal-dreaming or just looking for a fun day at the gym, gymnastics programs are an easy way to engage body and mind for all kids regardless of skill level or ambition.
"For the price of a new video game you can make a monthly investment in your child's health and well being that can last a lifetime," concluded Harrington.
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