GIVE IT TIME
Beyond the shiny machines, hip design, pop culture references or accessibility to fun, any program targeted to keeping kids healthy and active requires one essential: patience, says Don McPherson, owner of Aerial Gymnastics in Downers Grove, Ill., and a coach of elite and recreational gymnastics programs since 1977. Results don't come overnight, many skills take longer than others, and every child has his or her own specific learning curve.
This investment in time is especially crucial with less-active children who may not have developed the muscle skills of their more-active peers, adds Chelsea Piers' Kormann. Chelsea Piers' program, for example, runs for a minimum of 17 weeks, giving participants the time required to show improvement.
Program directors and instructors also must work with parents—as well as children—to be patient when it comes to results, going against the grain of an instant-gratification society, McPherson says. Some skills don't develop overnight: McPherson says he reminds parents how long it took their toddler children to balance on their feet when it comes to learning how to balance on their hands for a perfect handstand.
Second only to patience in the canon of kids' fitness programs is learning, McPherson adds. Children possess an innate desire to learn new things, so program instructors or moderators must play to that. And if it takes a long time to learn a skill or concept, that means instructors should mix things up, using different ways to teach the same skill.
"Even when you're doing the same thing, you can do the same thing in different ways," he says. "If they're having a hard time one way, you put them on another device or use another method; you have to make them feel like they're being successful."
One of the best skills that coaches can teach kids, he adds, is to show them they're learning for their own, individual selves, not for anyone else, for two reasons: They can't compare themselves to a child with a different learning curve, and they will build pride when they are successful for themselves.
"Especially with girls, the pride factor is completely extreme," McPherson says.
Finally, kids need to be exposed to plenty of different opportunities to succeed and find an activity that fits their interests. McPherson warns against pigeonholing children into one sport or activity too early on, often based on stereotypes or misconceptions of what kids like.
"You can have a big, tall kid in gymnastics, just like you can have a skinny, little kid playing basketball," he says. "Eventually, their body types are going to steer them one way or another, but you can't ever, ever tell them they can't do something. Let them experience as much as they want."
Getting those kids out into the recreation and fitness world to experience things is the goal of marketing all children's programs. In a world full of choices, you need to use marketing smarts and creativity in both programming and execution to make your choices stand out in a crowded marketplace of leisure options for kids.
By following a few key tenets, such as making it easy, making it current, making it filled with learning experiences and making it fun, you can make your program a must for kids of all stripes. Getting them off the couch and into your facility benefits all.