Aerobics for pre-school children is catching on, writes Patricia Weston.
'Pretend you're pushing a big blue elephant away and then pulling him back towards you by his tail." That's just one of the images Sabrina Kearins uses to teach toddlers how to work their biceps during an aerobics class.
A fitness instructor with Stretch-n-Grow Ireland, Kearins visits Montessori schools, crèches, playgroups and pre-schools to teach aerobics to two- to five-year-olds. "Each class consists of a 10-minute warm-up using stories to music to get the kids exercising. Once the muscles are warmed up there's another story for the 20- to 30-minute workout. Then a stretch song is introduced, to stretch out the muscles, and, finally, the relaxation session. The kids love it," she says.
The programme originated in the US in 1992 and came to Ireland in 1999. There are now classes in counties Clare, Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Limerick, Louth, Meath and Wexford.
A cynic might point out that normal toddlers don't need encouragement to run around and that it's only less than perfect childcare arrangements that necessitate such programmes. Christine O'Donovan of the department of physical education and sport at University College Cork says: "My children attended a crèche that had space for them to run around, but this seems to be the exception nowadays." But she adds: "It's a great idea, particularly when the weather is bad". Not all children want just to run around, she says: "They love structure and variety".
Three-and-a-half-year-old Scott Byrne from Drogheda takes part in the classes at a local crèche. "He loves it," says his mother, Ashley. "When he comes home from pre-school he shows me all the exercises that he was doing that day."
Instructors introduce a topic during each class - hygiene, exercise, nutrition, safety, muscles, the body, the heart, the brain. "In order to educate the children about safety and incorporate movement, we tell a story about Woody from the movie Toy Story," says Yvonne Magilton, who owns the Drogheda franchise.
"The children are encouraged to mimic Woody's actions as he walks along the street and, on approaching a traffic light, reaches forward to press the button and looks from side to side to check for traffic." To teach toddlers the importance of diet, the instructor tells the story of Jack and the beanstalk, including his journey to the market and the healthy contents of his lunch box. "The children really enjoy the classes, and they absorb the information without realising that they're learning healthy, positive habits for the future."
They are also given a worksheet with all the information they have learned to take home. Props such as wands, inflatable balls and a parachute are used to motivate the children in a fun way. Each child a mat or box to stand on, to make wandering off less likely.
A small beanbag is used to improve balance and develop motor skills. The children hold the edges of a parachute or large sheet, lifting it above their heads and walking around. This encourages teamwork and exercises muscles.
"Developing good health and fitness habits at an early age is very positive," according to Frances Murphy of St Patrick's College in Dublin. "Early intervention can create a positive attitude towards exercise, which is the key to good health."
• For more information on classes, see www.stretch-n-grow.ie