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Published April 04, 2012, 11:00 PM

Toddlers in training: Tots as young as 18 months learning sports, dance basics

FARGO - In a mirrored dance studio at Gasper’s School of Dance in downtown Fargo, tiny tots dressed in tutus learn to leap and kick. Just across town, teeny tumblers are learning to roll, bounce and swing at American Gold Gymnastics. And with the help of the Tri-City Storm Soccer Club, 3- and 4-year-olds can develop their balance and coordination while playing with a soccer ball.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

FARGO - In a mirrored dance studio at Gasper’s School of Dance in downtown Fargo, tiny tots dressed in tutus learn to leap and kick.

Just across town, teeny tumblers are learning to roll, bounce and swing at American Gold Gymnastics.

And with the help of the Tri-City Storm Soccer Club, 3- and 4-year-olds can develop their balance and coordination while playing with a soccer ball.

While they’re getting acquainted with their ABC’s and 1-2-3’s, some preschoolers are also learning the basics of athletic skills through various programs throughout Fargo-Moorhead.

Some programs, like north Fargo’s Just For Kix, take kids as young as 18 months in parent-tot classes.

“It’s almost like preschool set to music and dancing,” said Carly Hager, north Fargo’s Just For Kix director.

The creative movement exercises they practice are an introduction to basic dance fundamentals and technique, she said. The toddlers through 3-year-olds are in a shorter six-week session.

Hager said she had no hesitation to enroll her daughter in the class because of how much she loves music and dance.

“They’re like sponges. Anything you throw at them they absorb and they just want more,” Hager said. “Kids just love it. It’s fun, and it’s a great energy outlet for them.”

The key, instructors say, is to base the programs around the kids’ needs and abilities. Most of the programs seem to be a lot like guided play – kids can climb, tumble and jump – activities they tend to do naturally anyway, but in a safer environment.

“These kids who are climbing at home, that’s what they’re made to do, so when we as adults try to put a kibosh on that, we’re really hindering their development,” said Nate Hendrickson, special needs and fitness director for TNT Kids Fitness and Gymnastics in Fargo. “It’s so important that kids learn to explore and move.”

Not only is it crucial for their bodies, but it’s also important for brain development, he said.

Fostering a love of activity early on will also help prevent a sedentary lifestyle later in life, he said.

“What we have to do first and foremost is get the kids to enjoy it,” he said.

Dr. Michael Bergeron, a Sanford Children’s Health Research Center senior scientist and professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, said young kids need to be active, but there’s also value in informal play settings.

“It really comes down to allowing kids to develop in a variable and unstructured way at their own pace,” he said. “I’m all for being active, but there is a lot of merit in also letting that happen in a more variable, random way.”

He also cautions against pushing sports training too early.

Kids develop at their own unique pace. Athletic performance involves not only motor skills, but also cognitive and visual skills that take time to develop. Forced repetitive practice isn’t going to accelerate that, he said.

“It’s a very misguided notion from some adults that once children can walk, then they ought to be able to do other skills, and if they just repeat them and practice them, they’re going to improve, and that’s honestly not the way it works,” Bergeron said.

There’s no evidence that learning sports-related skills that early translates into an athletic advantage, he said.

“You’re not going to really have a whole lot of impact on developing general, foundational or any sport-specific athletic skills until maybe 5 or 6 years old at the earliest,” Bergeron said. “Anything before that is kind of fruitless and frustrating for the child and parents.”

Matthew Gasper of Gasper’s School of Dance and Performing Arts said training sport-specific moves at a young age is not a good idea, but activities that incorporate motor skills like balance, jumping, throwing, kicking and skipping will help them grow into sports.

“It is so important to get kids active and in an active lifestyle when young,” he said. “Get them outside and play – then the child will continue to be active, and childhood obesity would not be such a problem.”

The preschoolers in the Tri-City Storm Soccer Club play games with a soccer ball in a fun environment, but they don’t actually play soccer matches at that age, said Shea Durham, Tri-City Storm Soccer Club Director of Coaching.

“We don’t advise getting kids involved in sports at young ages, because the kids will burn out over time,” he said.

Preschool classes involve a lot of balance and coordination games with a soccer ball, he said.

“Really what they’re doing is not playing soccer, they’re playing at soccer,” Durham said.

The programs for toddlers and preschools typically focus on large motor skills.

“We introduce them to how much fun it is to move and be active,” said Marci Schuster, recreational director for American Gold Gymnastics, where children as young as 18 months can participate in the parent-tot classes.

The kids will bounce on trampolines, crawl through the pit, walk on floor beams, and do rolls.

“Here, it’s all padded. They just love it. It’s so much fun,” she said.

Another benefit is the social aspect.

Anna Grothmann of Fargo enrolled all three of her daughters, ages 3, 5 and 8, in the north Fargo Just For Kix dance program because they stayed home with her during the day and taking dance classes was a good way to meet other kids their age, she said.

“There is a little bit of a classroom atmosphere in that they have to listen to Miss Carly and follow directions,” she said. “They can also be silly and have fun. The girls absolutely love their dance classes.”

Teri-Lee James started taking her daughter, Wren, to parent-tot gymnastics classes when she was a year old and they lived in Tennessee. The focus was on parent-child interaction, movement, music and fitness.

“We noticed that she was very strong and able to do a lot of the more advanced exercises,” James said.

So they looked for a similar program when they moved to Fargo three years ago and discovered TNT Kids Fitness and Gymnastics.

Wren, who just turned 5, loves going to TNT and seems to have a talent and passion for gymnastics, James said.

“It is really amazing to see your child excel in something that you have no experience with or talent for, but mostly it is amazing to see her develop as a person, and I think gymnastics is helping her do that,” James said.

Wren not only works hard during her more than four hours of practice every week, but she also often asks to stay longer for open gym and she practices her floor skills at home on her own, James said.

“I think people have some hesitation about young children participating in sports at this level, but if it is done well, there are so many benefits,” she said. “The way we look at it is that if she is having fun and enjoying herself doing something that she is really good at, how can we not encourage that?”

Competitive gymnastics programs like to start working with kids early on to teach them the proper positioning for things like cartwheels before they’ve learned how to do it incorrectly on their own, said Whitney Beck, TNT Kids Fitness and Gymnastics competitive director.

And there are guidelines the program follows about things children can’t do at a young age – like backbends, she said.

“We’re really careful about burnout, which doesn’t really happen at that age because everything is so fun,” Beck said. “It’s exciting every day. We’re still doing a lot of jumping on the trampoline or jumping in the pit.”

And kids are not pushed to the next level until they are absolutely ready, Hendrickson said.

“If we push them too far too fast, we run the risk of physically hurting and emotionally hurting that child because we’ve set them up for failure.”

Instead of pushing, it’s important to let kids try different things so they can find their niche, said Shauna Larson, south Fargo Just for Kix director, who has been teaching dance for 15 years.

“An athlete’s mental well-being is just as important as their physical well-being, and I think sometimes kids are pushed into too much too soon,” Larson said.