When Jamie Doubek was almost 4, his mother began noticing that he was always the last child at the playground to try climbing the monkey bars. He was last to learn how to swing. The last to go down the slide. Though neither small nor frail, he always seemed to hold back when other children his age played at full-throttle. He was the one who most often stood nearby and watched.
"Jamie has always been reluctant to try anything physical," says his mother, Karen Doubek, an artist representative in the District who empathized with her son's predicament. She could remember her own anxiety as a child when forced to play softball and other sports at school. "I got the idea that he wasn't all that confident about his physical abilities."
Rather than chalk up his wariness of getting physical to timid genetics, or figure he'd simply outgrow it, she decided to do something to help Jamie. She enrolled him in an exercise and movement program called "Tumble Tots," designed specifically to work on motor skills in preschool children. He wasn't comfortable at first; he didn't say a word in the class for six months. But the day Karen Doubek saw Jamie jumping across the front yard, she knew it was working.
Now, two years later, Jamie arrives eagerly at his Tumble Tots class on Tuesday afternoons. Last summer, he took his first swimming lessons. Lately, he's been talking about horseback-riding lessons. "He's much more willing to try things," says Karen Doubek, who has also enrolled Jamie's younger brother, Joey, in the program.
The room is small but airy, maybe 20-by-24 feet, a full-sized trampoline cramps an entire side of it. Located on the second floor of a shopping center across MacArthur Boulevard from Glen Echo Park, mothers and children stride up the stairs to Tumble Tots to the scent of fresh fish from the seafood shop below. Inside, playful music blares as seven children, all of them 4-year-olds, bounce around the floor like rubber balls.
" ... Now fly like birds," instructs the voice on a recording called "Animal Actions." The children, dressed in sweat pants and T-shirts, shorts and leotards, giggle and flap their imaginary wings, stepping lightly around the exercise props. The music stops abruptly and they race over to a large triangle painted into a corner and wait. The two teachers do, too. The music starts again.
" ... now crawl like snakes." The children drop to their bellies and wriggle on the floor, some laughing, some concentrating on how a snake might move. The music stops. They race to the triangle. " ... now act like monkeys."
Joye Newman leans close and whispers without taking her eyes off the children, "This is the part where they work on muscle strength and listening skills." Minutes later, when hula hoops are scattered on the floor to jump in and out of, she whispers, "spatial awareness and listening skills." Where someone else sees only a group of kids having fun, she calculates the motor skills that are engaged and practiced in each of the exercises: laterality ... balance ... spatial awareness ... eye-hand coordination ... "My daughter could never jump on two feet before this," she says, watching her 4-year-old daughter across the room do just that.
Eight years ago, Newman was a perceptual-motor therapist working one-on-one with children who required rehabilitative or corrective therapy. She was frustrated. She'd loved the "movement classes" she taught in nursery schools while earning her graduate degree. "I missed groups of kids who were there not for therapeutic anything, just there for fun," she says. So she founded Tumble Tots.
Since then, the program has grown from a hobby to a business that trains and employs teachers and schedules highly organized classes for children, aged 18 months to 7 years, four days a week. Parents pay $95 for eight classes. Many sign up for subsequent sessions. Four-year-old Anna Dorn gets plenty of activity already at the playground where she attends nursery school. "But Anna just loves it," says her mother, Palmer Dorn, "so we drive out here once a week."
But while the classes are fun, they're not only fun. You might say Newman insists on kids being kids -- particularly at a time when so many children are shoved into maturity prematurely. Physical play, the kind that develops physical skills, she believes, is de-emphasized as some young children are tucked away in movement-restricting day-care centers, as neighborhoods and streets are no longer the safe playgrounds they once were, as television invites passivity in busy homes, as parents are preoccupied with their toddlers' IQ's and test scores push reading and writing rather than roughhousing.
"I'd like to burn all the flash cards in America," says Newman. From the point of view of a perceptual-motor specialist, flash cards are the flags of the enemy, the symbol of the kind of thinking that has 5-year-olds too busy preparing for Harvard to go outside and jump in a pile of leaves.
"Who looks happier? A kid who's jumping or one who can read? This is what 3- and 4-year-old kids should be doing."
Not that Newman scoffs at intellect. She just believes everything in its own time. Motor skills are learned in sequence, she explains. They are learned only by doing. "Three- and 4-year-olds aren't really ready to be reading, their visual systems aren't ready for doing 'near work.' There's lots of reading readiness skills that are movement skill. If a child doesn't have a sense that there are two sides of his body, for instance, how can he tell the difference between a lowercase and uppercase letter?
"What I want to get across to people is that ... if your basic kid who's 6 or 7 years or younger doesn't feel comfortable with his body, that's going to impact on his life."
While one teacher helps 4-year-old Michael Skalka onto the trampoline, the other encourages the rest of the class to build an obstacle course from props in the room. They choose to scoot under a bridge, crawl through a tunnel, jump on the foot-stompers, twirl around twice on the spin-seat, and roll down a huge pie-shaped mat. "That works on a lot of spatial skills, going under, going over, height, distance. It's for motor planning -- being able to perfect a nonfamiliar motor skill," says Newman. "And they're thinking. Thinking shouldn't be separate from moving. It should all be part of the same thing."
Newman likens motor and perceptual development to a pyramid: "When people say you have to crawl before you can walk, that's true," she says. "You naturally perfect one skill before you add on to the next ... If there are some bricks skipped from the lower levels of this pyramid, steps the child never had time to perfect, eventually that pyramid is going to collapse ...
"So if most motor development goes on from birth to age 5, a child's never going to have as good a chance for that afterward. If they get it by then, they've got it."
On the trampoline, Michael's a little anxious but doesn't hesitate. He's a big boy for his age. His mother, Sandy Kronsberg, wonders if he didn't miss some steps in developing coordination. But since Michael's been at Tumble Tots, she can see the difference even in how he walks up the stairs at home.
"Michael, look at the painting on the wall, jump up and down and do big arm circles," says the teacher, a personal trainer and exercise physiologist when not at Tumble Tots. Michael jumps, does arms circles, and tips a little off-balance before correcting himself.
"Good, Michael, now freeze." Michael stops. "Now look at the door in the painting and do a seat drop." Michael jumps a few times, straightens his legs in front of him and drops to his seat and comes up smiling.
"It's not very hard to do a seat drop. Kids who aren't terribly skilled can still do it," says Newman, who considers the trampoline an invaluable tool that combines work on practically all motor skills. "But you feel like a million bucks when you do a seat drop on a trampoline. Those kids just strut off of there afterward."
And that's part of it, she says. Physical confidence. Self-confidence. "A lot of times, parents put a kid into Tumble Tots just to have a good time. And that's what he needs. Kids just need a little success. They need to know they can do things." For more information about Tumble Tots, call 301-229-6001.
Moving Along at Home
"Movement shouldn't only happen every Tuesday from 3:15 to 4 o'clock," says Joye Newman, a perceptual motor therapist and founder-director of the Tumble Tots program. "You need to integrate movement into your child's whole life." Among suggestions Newman says can help accomplish that:
When taking walks with your child, walk ahead of him and have him run to you while he's looking at you. Or say, "Let's keep looking at that red car down the street" while the two of you walk toward it. "Encourage your child to look straight ahead when walking or running, and not down, so he is integrating his visual space with his movement," she advises.
To encourage balance, have kids walk on curbs, on low walls at shopping malls, on lines in the cement. "If your child needs a hand, offer it, but keep your hand stable and let them do all of the balancing movement," she says.
To work on eye-hand coordination, roll balls to young kids. Vary the size and color. For kids having trouble, start by using balloons, which move slower, or beanbags, which are easier to grasp. "Bubbles are good, too," says Newman. "You blow them and have the child clap them with both hands. Or pinch them with fingers for working on fine motor skills."
When going from one room to another, advises Newman, "tell your child to move like the animals. Jump like a kangaroo. Slither like a snake. Run like a rabbit ... This will make it more fun for them, while working on creativity and also their general motor skills."
"People are always rushing," says Newman. "Try leaving 5 minutes earlier then you need to, and let the child walk to the car and climb up into the car seat by herself. Same thing with putting socks and shoes on, getting dressed. It's really beneficial."
Especially in fall weather, rolling is a wonderful activity for children. "If you can find a hill that doesn't lead to a highway, rolling down hills is great," says Newman. "It develops balance, it develops motor planning -- because you have to figure out how to move your body to do it, it develops endurance, and tactile and kinesthetic sense."
For body awareness, have your kids put their elbows on the wall, put their noses on the car, put their knees against the fence.
As for equipment, every house should have some kind of wagon, says Newman. "Kids can pull it, load it, figure out how to maneuver it through space." Hoops are terrific -- jumping into them, climbing through them, playing silly games.
"What parents need to guard against is if a child can't do a particular skill, don't practice it," warns Newman. "If he can't do it, he's not ready to do it. Think of something different that will lead to that skill and will enable the child to grow into it."