Toddlers are natural tumblers, as I witnessed on a recent excursion to the toddler and preschooler open gym at Gleason's Gymnastic School. A dozen kids in stocking feet ran around the large, blue-carpeted room. A tiny girl in a red leotard jumped on a trampoline and did splits in the air.
My daughter dashed for the tumble track, a long bouncy strip elevated to thigh height on a grown-up. She skipped down its length and only paused at the end before leaping into a pit of maroon and cream foam blocks.
"Watch me, Mama!" she yelled "Watch me!"
It's hard to find a place to run around in the winter in Minnesota, and my daughter was going to make the most of it.
Gleason's offered its first preschool open gym more than 20 years ago to fill the place's empty weekday hours and to serve as a teaser to get students enrolled in gymnastics classes. The play sessions have become popular in their own right, mimicked by other gymnastic schools around the Twin Cities and embraced by parents who want their kids to burn off energy and maybe learn a few moves.
"It's tremendous fun," said owner Larry Gleason. "And it's a stimulating environment for play. Kids love to run, jump and crash and bounce on the trampoline. It's a natural activity for them."
I took my kindergarten-age daughter to the school's Eagan site on a recent Friday morning when school was out. I held her hand while she walked on a balance beam and traipsed after her as she somersaulted
Open gym is designed to let kids explore on their own, but they get encouragement and tips from Alexander "Sasha" Svirsch, a former circus acrobat from Ukraine who teaches the regular preschool classes.
He showed my daughter how to navigate the obstacle course and how to swing her arms like windmill blades to help her keep her balance on the trampoline.
"Now, touch your knees," he said, demonstrating how to draw her knees up to her chest while she was in the air.
Learning any sport - or any skill, for that matter - is all about incremental steps. You learn a move and practice it. You learn another move that builds on the previous move and practice that. You learn another move and practice that, until you finally find yourself doing a back flip.
"You just watch their confidence grow along at their own pace," said mom Ann Younglove of Lakeville, who had been to Gleason's with her two boys a half dozen times over the past several months. Her toddler, Niko, was climbing a floor mat while Kai, 4, was walking back and forth on the teeter-totter, getting better each time.
"He likes to climb
Gleason's is one of the oldest gymnastics schools in Minnesota, founded by Larry Gleason in 1966 in South Minneapolis. It moved to Eagan in 1974.
"When I was in high school, gymnastics was not a big sport," said the former high school gymnast and state champion. "And it was only a men's sport. There were no girls at all."
The gender balance isn't the only thing that has changed in 50 years. Gymnastics also moved out of schools and into private clubs. Gleason's has 1,000 students enrolled at the Eagan location with another 700 in Maple Grove. Most children are in a weekly recreational class, although the school also trains successful
Gleason believes gymnastics can teach a child a lot.
"I spent a lot of my youth on the farm where we'd climb trees and stuff like that," he said. "I hooked up a rope trapeze in the hayloft, and I always liked to jump off things and see how far I could roll. Kids don't get that opportunity anymore. And I believe that kind of activity does a lot to stimulate the brain. It stimulates their development mentally as well as physically.
"The activity of gymnastics - not necessarily competing, but learning gymnastics - goes a long way to build confidence. They learn to solve physical problems, and that success transfers to other sports and other activities."
Halfway through the morning, the staff stretches a big parachute on the floor, and the adults grab the edges and make it billow upward. We play a parachute game, and then Svirsch sits with his legs flat on the floor and stretched straight in front of him.
"What do you call this shape?" he asks, pointing to his legs.
"A rectangle!" a kid shouts gleefully.
"Well, maybe that's at your school, but in gymnastics, we call it a pike position," Svirsch says.
He shows the kids how to stretch. He gets on his hands and knees and shows them how to "kick like a donkey" by throwing both feet up in the air.
Then, he brings them to the edge of the foam pit. Some kids leap off the edge without hesitating. Others have to be coaxed. "One, two, three...goodbye," he cheerfully sings out, as he gently shoves a girl over the edge. The next time, she jumps off by herself. She had learned both lessons, how to tumble and how to take a risk.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Preschool and toddler open gym at Gleason's Gymnastics School
Where: 2015 Silver Bell Road, Eagan
Information: 651-454-6203, gleasons.com
Hours: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and noon to 2 p.m. Friday
Cost: $8 per child, $10 per family
Target audience: Kids who want to bounce off steam
Crowd pleaser: The trampoline
Avoid: Getting dragged onto the apparatus yourself. Bring a friend for your child.
Tip: Download and fill out the required waiver online.
Special events: Gleason's runs open gym for kids in first grade through age 13 from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Fridays and open gym for teens from 7 to 10 p.m. Fridays. A second location in Maple Grove also holds open gym.
More: Read previously published Family Outings at MinnMoms.com/outings.
INDOOR WINTER PLAYGROUNDS
Here are our top places to run around indoors in the winter with kids. We're not talking about a stroll through a museum; we're talking energy-consuming, nap-inducing activity. Share your ideas for indoor winter romps at facebook.com/minnmoms and we'll post a list on the Pioneer Press parenting website, MinnMoms.com.
Adventure Peak (Edinborough Park, 7700 York Ave. S., Edina): A woodsy-themed playground that bills itself as one of the largest in the country. Located in the one-acre indoor park, it includes a 30-foot fake tree, four giant tube slides, an inflatable bounce house and more. $5.50; 952-832-6790; edinboroughpark.com.
Eagle's Nest (Family Service Center, 400 10th St. N.W., New Brighton): Tubes, slides, ball pits, foam forest, climbing walls. The only downside is trying to retrieve your kid when he's 12 feet up and won't come down from the net. Enclosed area for kids ages 3 and younger. $5.50; 651-638-2130; ci.new-brighton.mn.us.
Lookout Ridge (8595 Central Park Place, Woodbury): This indoor playground re-creates the St. Croix River Valley in plastic and foam. Explore caves and cliffs, climb a tree and slip down the 30-foot slide. $5.50; 651-414-3434; ci.woodbury.mn.us.
Minnesota History Center (345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul): After a tour through history, climb a play structure that looks like a grain elevator in the Grainland exhibit, which includes a Soo Line boxcar to explore and lots of slides. $10 to $5; younger than 5, free; 651-259-3000; minnesotahistorycenter.org.
Minnesota Children's Museum (10 W. Seventh St., St. Paul): This museum is one big romper room. Favorite haunts are Habitot, an enclosed room just for crawlers and toddlers, and the tunnels in the giant ant hill in the Earth World exhibit. $8.95; 651-225-6000; mcm.org.
Sky Zone (595 N. Hale Ave., Oakdale): The popular trampoline park offers wall-to-wall bouncing for toddlers, preschoolers and their grown-ups on Tuesday and Friday mornings. Get your wiggles out. $12 per hour; 651-200-3383; skyzonesports.com.
For more indoor play places, especially baby- and toddler-friendly ones, visit Busy Little Baby, one of our featured bloggers.