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A place for kids to hit the gym


Marianna Osterman is in the center of her brightly colored Columbia business, flanked by two facing lines of frisky 5- and 6-year-olds learning how to play "steal the bacon."

Players on each line are assigned numbers, and when a leader calls out - say, "three" - each "three" dashes to the middle and tries to snatch the "bacon" (actually a couple of bean bags) and dash safely back before being tagged.

That simple game is loaded with little lessons that help expose young children to ways that will serve them better in life, and maybe, in a sport or two. And it is part of an increasingly popular kind of schooling, with purveyors in the private and public sectors.

Thievery is not one of the lessons taught. But you need to be pretty grownup to appreciate that, instead of just having fun, stealing the bacon can teach you stuff.

As Osterman said later, "It's a fun way of becoming physical. They don't really know that they're working themselves out. ... We're not just about gymnastics. We teach motor skills, socialization, as well as some sports skills."

Students also learn about listening, for example, for their number. About getting along with others. About competing (although no one loses), about the thrill of chasing and being chased. About quick thinking - how to grab and then elude a tag. You learn that competing can be uproarious fun. Not to mention, the kids work their muscles by running, bending and stretching.

No one argues that the next Shaquille O'Neal or Marion Jones or Derek Jeter will come out of one of these programs - although, who knows?

Osterman's 18-month old business, in the Columbia 100 Industrial Center, just off Route 100, is My Gym, a franchise that bills itself as a "child fitness center." Lots of parents go to gyms. Why not kids? Her clientele ranges from 3-month-olds to teen-agers.

She has competition locally, in many age groups, from Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, Columbia Association, several gymnastics businesses, and for kids in elementary school, multiple youth sports organizations.

The young ones are brought by an increasing number of parents who many in physical education want to believe grasp the concept that regular exercise and fitness are important for children.

Laura Wetherald, the recreation department's recreation division manager, said those parents understand that for many children today - with day care, working parents, computer games and television - play has become a far different game.

"When we were kids," said Wetherald, 48 and a mother of two, "we were never indoors much. We made up games, but with all the instant entertainment available to children today, such as TV and computers, there's less incentive to be active."

Pamela Gasiorowski, an Oakland Mills High alumna who now lives in Elkridge, has two sons, and for more than a decade has taught and helped develop the county recreation department's multiple programs for young children.

"Old-fashioned play is good, but, you know, kids don't even know how to play tag anymore," said Gasiorowski, who has classes and camps nearly year-round. "Everything is so organized."

She and the recreation department have evolved a sequence of programs that begin with simple, quick games for 3- to 5-year-olds, usually accompanied by their mothers, and progress to teaching rudimentary skills transferable to sports. Part of it is the same concept found at My Gym - teaching life skills, physical skills and sports skills, all in settings designed to be noncompetitive and fun.

Classes like these are the leading edge of what has become known as the new physical education, which stresses lifetime fitness above competing in team sports.

In recent years, at the national level, concern over record-level obesity among American children is fostering renewed interest in physical education, the argument being that a sedentary, overweight culture will cause huge, expensive public health problems in adulthood.

Why start so young? Gary E. Sanders, a Minnesota physical education professor, recently wrote for teachers and parents on that researchers believe a "window of opportunity for acquiring basic motor movements is from prenatal to 5 years old; for fine motor skills, the window is from after birth to about 9 years old.

"During this period, the brain gathers and stores information, and a solid foundation for movement activities is built. At age 10, the ... window closes."

Some experts argue, with some documentation emerging, that physical fitness also translates to improved thinking capabilities in the classroom.

Gasiorowski said that simply exposing tots to the simplest of sports skills, such as kicking, throwing, rolling and pulling over short distances, may help children later find enjoyable ways of working on fitness years from now. That is a concept the county public schools are building on, as well.

Recreation department programs for young kids stress involvement with a parent - something that often is revelatory for the adult, as well as the child.

"Mothers will say things like, 'I never knew that's how you throw, or how you hit a ball,' " said Gasiorowski. Often, she said, parents then build on the class skills at home.

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