By Kristy Roser Nuttall
As a kid, I remember watching Mary Lou Retton compete at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the thrill of seeing her clinch the gold medal for the U.S. team when she stuck her final landing on the vault. I also remember trying to be like Mary Lou Retton on my best friend’s swing set and attempting to do an amazing swinging dismount like her from the top bar. Somehow it didn’t turn out quite as well as Mary Lou’s routine. I flew up in the air with Olympic glory, but I landed in a suburban neighborhood patch of dirt and sprained my arm. I got to wear a sling for the next couple of weeks and be teased about my Olympic aspirations, but it didn’t daunt my love for gymnastics.
I had the opportunity to take lessons when I was in elementary school, and I loved the chance to try out the balance beam, vault, high bar, and tumbling on the mat. I enjoyed gymnastics for the thrill of moving my body and getting to try out the equipment I’d only seen before on T.V. I also loved the music they played at the gym, and the chance to move my body in rhythm to the beat while balancing, cart wheeling, and jumping up to grasp the top bar. All four of my boys have had the chance to participate in gymnastics classes, and now I understand that the benefits go far beyond just having fun and enjoying the music at the gym. Kids who participate in gymnastics get a strong physical, social, and even academic boost.
The physical benefits of gymnastics for kids are well documented. Participating in this energetic sport lets kids improve their:
Balance: Gymnastics hones the ability to move the body in a graceful way often on one foot or springing off of one or two hands. Kids learn to center their balance and reduce the amount of times they fall.
Bone density: Gymnastics actually helps kids improve their bone density because it involves weight bearing exercises that put stress on the bone and this triggers increased deposits of calcium in the bones.
Flexibility: One of the best ways to prevent sports injuries is to improve flexibility. Gymnastics keeps kids limber and because of the constant stretching of various muscles, they are less likely to turn their ankle in a basketball game or tear a tendon while leaping down the stairs.
Endurance: Gymnastics can make you break a sweat! Lots of running, somersaulting, swinging, cartwheeling, and jumping will definitely help your child build their physical stamina.
But some of the most amazing benefits of gymnastics aren’t just physical—they are social, emotional, and academic.
On the social side, kids learn how to wait in line, take turns, and follow directions. Having the chance to learn the value of patience at a young age will help them with their self-control as they grow older. They also know that they have to listen to the instructor or they might injure themselves while doing the next gymnastic feat. Kids also learn the importance of encouraging their fellow class or team mates and helping someone up when they fall down.
On the emotional front, just doing gymnastics will trigger the release of feel-good hormones in the body called endorphins that automatically boost a child’s positive sense of well-being and improve their mood. Children also develop personal grit doing gymnastics by choosing to overcome fears and doing things that seem hard at first. They learn the importance of getting back up when they fall down and listening to feedback from their coaches about how they can turn their failures into successes. Plus, they gain greater self-esteem and self-confidence by working hard and realizing how much they can improve with practice.
As for academics, many parents have reported that their child’s reading and school grades have improved after participating in gymnastics. Studies show that doing gymnastics actually programs the brain for success in reading and other academic tasks. The left hemisphere of the brain controls movement on the right side of the body and a right hemisphere controls movement on the left side of the body. When a child crawls, jumps, or walks on a balance beam, their brains are creating strong neural pathways that connect the right and left hemispheres.
Why are these neural pathways so important? When a child learns to read, the right and left hemispheres need to work together in a very coordinated symphony—the left side attending to sequencing and letter sounds, while the right is focusing on comprehension and the big picture. This symphony becomes even more harmonious when the child has participated in activities like gymnastics where these key neural pathways are constantly activated in the brain. The stronger the neural pathways between the two sides of the brain, the more efficient the brain becomes at accomplishing academic tasks and achieving reading fluency.
U.S.A gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport of gymnastics in the U.S., has conducted studies on the mental benefits of gymnastics and besides reading improvement, they’ve also found that math skills improve when kids participate in gymnastics because all of the bilateral movement that involves visual, audio, and spatial awareness create key neural pathways for mathematical reasoning and problem solving. Basically, when your kid participates in gymnastics, it’s like giving them a chance to wire their brains in the optimal way for learning everything from reading Harry Potter or Shakespeare to doing trigonometry and calculus. Sign your kids up for an after school gymnastics class or summer camp before letting them watch Frozen or a Ninjago episode for the umpteenth time.
Have your kids tried gymnastics classes? What benefits have you noticed? What part of gymnastics to your kids enjoy the most? Have you found a class or program that you would recommend? Please share!
Additional Resources on gymnastics summer camps, boys’ gymnastics, gymnastics for toddlers, artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, and other gymnastic programs for kids at www.iquriouskids.com
Katy Kips Gymnastics Club:
The Little Gym:
Mary Lou Retton Moment:
Also, remember this moment in the 1996 Olympics?