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The Little Gym makes a big impact in the Northtowns

Alexis, Audriana and Abigail Kagels decided last year they wanted to explore more of what life has to offer. Their mother, Andrea, started looking for a gym where the girls – now ages 8, 6 and 4, respectively – could start gymnastics without the early pressure that can come with the sport.

“We also dance and I couldn’t do something that was so time-consuming that you could only do one thing,” Andrea Kagels said.

Facebook helped her find the place what she sought: the Little Gym of Williamsville.

The center, at 8175 Sheridan Drive in Clarence, is one of more than 350 affiliated franchise sites in 32 countries built to help kids develop socially, emotionally and intellectually as they grow physically.

The three sisters visit the gym at least three times a week: once for an hour class and twice for practice time. They’ve attended special camp sessions during days off from school. Two of the girls have had birthday parties there. Andrea Kagels and her husband, Ryan, a chief financial officer in the financial industry, also drop their daughters off about one Friday a month for a three-hour Parent Survival Night.

“It’s truly a little gem in this community,” Andrea said. Alexis agreed as she and her sisters arrived for a visit on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I can do a handstand, a flip on the bars, and I’ve almost got my front handspring,” the third-grader said. She’s also made new friends from different schools.

It’s the kind of experience Rachel Daving, a married Williamsville mother of a nearly 3-year-old son, had in mind when she started looking for special places that would help her son reach developmental milestones. She found them on visits to the nearest Little Gyms in Rochester and Southern Ontario, and opened her franchise branch last March. For more info, visit thelittlegym.com/williamsvilleny or call 475-4433.

Daving, a certified personal trainer, worked as a dental hygienist before taking on her new role. “Whenever the kids were my patients, it was the best part of my day,” she said.

The Little Gym of Williamsville is designed to help with child development, says Rachel Daving, owner and gym director, pictured with 4-year-old Liam Busse. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The center, in a small strip development just east of the Eastern Hills Mall, serves children from ages 4 months to 12 years in programs separated by age groups. It includes a kid-sized, Ninja-style gymnastics room with balance beams, parallel bars, uneven bars, springboards, and mats and bars for climbing. Colorful balancing chairs sit in lobby alongside it, and a play room nearby serves for classes and special events. Padded gymnastics equipment is strong enough to support kids and adults, and parents or guardians participate in classes for those under age 3.

Daving works with a program director, Stephanie Gross, an experienced day-care provider and nanny, and two part-time assistants who help on the busiest of days.

"We have a lot of first time moms here," Daving said. "Another plus is the parents having a social network. They can talk and kick ideas off each other."

The gym equipment setup changes weekly, so the adventure is new, too. "Manipulators" – including bells, shakers, sticks and scarves – are used in classes for the youngest students. A sports skills class for 3- and 4-year-olds includes properly sized and softened baseballs and basketballs.

Inspirational words on the walls include "Leadership," "Poise," "Drive," "Flexibility," "Friendship," "Coordination," "Trust," "Joy," "Independence," "Control," "Love of Learning" and "Strength."

"Those are all things that encourage," Daving said.

Q. This is a gymnastics center?

Rachel Daving, owner and gym director at The Little Gym of Williamsville, helps Audriana Kagels, 6, as she plays on the parallel bars. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Yes. We use gymnastics skills to teach. Our grade-school program is more gymnastics-based than our parent-child classes but even when they're really little and in our Tiny Bugs class, they're doing forward rolls and things like that. It's really good for their vestibular system, their neuromuscular development. It can prevent ear infections, build strength. They might not want to do tummy time for their abs but they think it's a blast when they're rolling around or we're helping them hang on the bars or with climbing.

Everything is padded. The entire floor is covered by padding. It's safe for everybody. That's also why we keep kids separated by age group. There's never, ever going to be a big kid running in here that can knock over your little one.

Q. What made the Little Gym franchise stand out for you?

I love the way that it nurtures all parts of the child. It's not just based on physical development. It's also teaching them confidence and how to deal with different challenges and situations, and it's helping them build confidence in a non-competitive environment.

Q. Can you talk about the holistic, “Three-Dimensional” approach to refining each child’s motor, social and cognitive skills during every class?

There’s three parts to our approach to learning. “Get Moving” helps with flexibility and strength; it lays the groundwork for a healthy lifestyle. “Brain Boost” fosters listening skills, concentration and decision-making, and helps them build a love for learning new things. “Citizen Kid” teaches them sharing, working together, listening to their leaders. These are all tools to help them grow into well-adjusted, well-rounded kids.

Q. Is there a limit in class sizes?

We keep them really small for individual attention. The ratio depends on the age group, but you’ll never see a class with more than 15 kids.

Q. Talk about your curriculum.

Our seasons parallel the school year and are 42 weeks long, so you sign up for 42 weeks, and each week the curriculum progresses off the last week, so they’re really developing some amazing skills. Kids come consistently, learn the structure, and it’s progressive. People can join at any point throughout the season and the cost is pro-rated.

The ones that started at 2 when we opened and were in with their moms are 3 now and are by themselves. They understand the structure. They know when to go sit, what’s coming next. They’ve gained confidence. We have a 10-week session over summer vacation and camps, too. You can join at any point.

Q. Can you talk about cost?

All of the programs are the same. It’s about $19 a week if you pay in a single payment. The payment plans differ. You get a structured class each week and when you enroll you also get age-specific “practice time” twice a week to come in and explore. We’re really big on keeping kids in the same age group so there’s not a 1-year-old running around with a 12-year-old. We want them to be safe and be around their peers, so that they’re learning from each other.

We also do a Wonderkids Club, a pre-school program. For a lot of the kids, this is their first drop-off program.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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