School’s out for the summer, but gym class is still in session. And there’s more to learn than you might think at the fitness-focused facilities that cater to infants, toddlers and young children all over the region.

Once considered glorified indoor playgrounds, they’ve evolved into educational centers that help little ones meet developmental milestones while fine-tuning motor and social skills such as turn-taking and sharing.

Combining exercise with age-appropriate games can be remarkably beneficial, says Karen McDonnell, a psychologist at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services who focuses on this field, dubbed “exergaming.” “Given that they create a safe environment that poses manageable challenges to kids, then they really do help kids to safely explore their world through testing out their physical skills,” she says.

From ball pits to high bars, here are some options for serious child’s play.

Ages: 4 months to 9 years
Average cost: $150 for eight weeks
Four area locations.

The hundreds of children who pass through the doors of the Arlington location (2499 N. Harrison St., 703-531-1470), the area’s first and busiest one, are greeted by bright green walls, red slides, a yellow rock wall and 10-inch purple balls.

Of the 20 classes JW Tumbles offers, the most popular is Wigglers, for toddlers 19 months to 2½ years, says Brad Danaceau, owner of the franchises in Alexandria, Arlington and Herndon. Instructors get everyone to gather around an enormous orange circle to warm up with stretching, singing and a practice skill, such as somersaulting with a caregiver’s assistance. Then they roll out new athletic activities every 10 minutes, giving tots the chance to swing at a ball or ride “Shamu” (a giant cylindrical padded mat suspended from the ceiling that challenges balance).

Classes run 45 to 60 minutes each for eight- to 10-week sessions.

Ages: 4 months to 12 years
Average cost: $80 to $90 per month
12 area locations.

The noncompetitive, gymnastics-based curriculum at the Little Gym explains why half the room at the Fairfax location (4211 Fairfax Corner East Ave., 703-818-9600) is filled with bars, rings and vaults. But the 24 classes on the roster teach much more than gymnastics (and dance and karate), says Chad Mussmon, chief executive officer of several Northern Virginia locations. Lessons also emphasize socialization and skills such as spatial awareness and problem-solving.

At a recent class for Beasts — toddlers 19 months to 2½ years — gym director Melissa Niedzialek warmed up the toddlers by running them in a circle before helping them flip over a high bar and tumble down a heavily padded ramp. To burn off any remaining energy, the class ended with the 10 tots shooting bouncy balls into short plastic basketball hoops — or, more accurately, trying to.

The 45-minute classes are offered in multi-week sessions. Three-day and weeklong camps are also held throughout the summer.

Ages: 1 to 10 years
Average cost: $11 per class
20 area locations.

The space doesn’t matter as much as the spirit at Funfit classes, which are really mini-traveling gyms that can go anywhere. Founded by sisters Celia Kibler and Maddie Cheers in 1987, the program is now available in an array of recreation and community centers. (The main location is inside the Olney Studio of Dance at 18200 Georgia Ave.)
“Kids don’t even know they’re getting a workout, because they’re too busy having fun,” says Kibler, who notes the 45-minute classes manage to pack in lessons in throwing; balance and coordination; following instructions; working as a team; and bonding with parents (who are always allowed to attend and participate).

While older kids play more familiar sports, such as baseball and soccer, the younger ones navigate obstacle courses and compete in sillier challenges. One popular diversion for Funfit Tots (1- to 4-year-olds) is Torpedo Tag, in which players “shoot” balloons at one another. When you’re hit, you freeze until someone else hits you. Don’t worry, though — no one stays still for long.

Written by Express contributor Stephanie Kanowitz
Photos by Abby Greenawalt