FAIRFIELD --As a region focused on health and well-being, gyms for kids have become prevalent throughout Fairfield County, with dozens of independent and chain-based gyms opening during the last five years.
With offerings like Tumble Jungle, which opened a location in Fairfield last month; Kidville, whose Westport gym opened in the fall; the enormous Sportsplex in Fairfield, with its plethora of options; and the veteran 30-year- old Tumble Bugs in Norwalk -- just to name a few -- the choices can be dizzying.
But is there enough demand to support so many kiddie gyms in such a small perimeter?
Tumble Bugs' Greenwich location, for example, was shut down last week.
But Lisa Mercurio, director of the Fairfield County Information Exchange, an initiative run by the county's business council, said it is no surprise gym-based centers for kids are widespread throughout the area.
"We are a very fitness-focused region, frequently ranked among the healthiest cities in the U.S. As we become more invested in health and physical activity, parents want the same for their children, recognizing being healthy as an adult has its roots in being healthy as a child," she said. "Just look at the growing popularity of soccer leagues in our towns starting as early as 3 or 4 years of age."
She said there is a large market to be served, as 20 percent of the population, or 185,000 people, are newborns and children up to age 14.
Class size an issue
As one of the newer gym-based centers for children vying for enrollment, Valerie Gutman, owner of the recently opened Kidville in Westport, said she quickly realized the need for an interactive gym for children after taking her own two daughters to a class at a local gym and leaving disappointed.
"There was one teacher for 15 kids and the kids were bored. They were always waiting for their turn to go," she said.
Opening the 4,800 square- foot facility in September at 1572 Post Road East, Gutman said the class offers a selection of developmental classes including music, art, gym and science, for ages birth to 6.
"It's incredibly important, not only for large motor skills and confidence, but also their minds and development universally," she said. "If kids are not given positive ways to release their energy, they will find negative ways to do it."
She said Kidville is currently at about three-quarters capacity with more children joining during the winter semester than in the fall.
"It's an upward trend and we're hopeful that our membership will continue to go up."
Good business model?
Keith Camhi, owner of Stamford-based Great Play along with his wife Jyl, said Fairfield County is an ideal market for children's gym providers.
"The parents are well-educated and understand the value of investing in their children's development. However, they also are discerning and value quality very heavily," he said.
Camhi, previously the co-founder and of FitLinxx, a leading technology provider to the commercial fitness industry, said from his experience with FitLinxx and his wife's experience taking their own kids around to existing kids gyms, they saw an opportunity to re-invent the children's gym category, leading to the creation of Great Play in 2006.
Developing and patenting what they call the "Interactive Arena" consisting of eight projectors on the walls, a sound system, sensors and lighting system, all under computer control, they're able to have a young, cozy cartoon play space with mushy mats for a morning 2 year old class and then at a press of a button and a quick set change, turn it into a baseball throwing class for 8 year olds in a cheering stadium.
"I'd say for providers that have yet another tumbling gym concept, the market is over-saturated and results will suffer. We hear indirectly of the struggles of some of these businesses. However, for us, with a highly differentiated offering, we think it's an ideal market," Camhi said.
The rapidly growing franchise, recently named to the Entrepreneur Franchise 500 and Top 50 New Franchises, has begun to roll out locations across the country, seeking markets like Fairfield County.
School budget cuts
Kimberly Nezvesky, co-owner of Tumble Jungle, a Connecticut franchise offering gymnastics, tumbling, and karate in each of its three locations, said gyms like Tumble Jungle can help bridge the shortfall in the nationwide cutbacks of PE programs in schools.
"Many local school systems are fabulous, but much like all institutions or corporations they are constrained in some areas. It appears physical education is increasingly one of these areas," she said. "Many teachers realize this but don't feel there is anything they can do about it. If we can help via field trips, physical education, supplemental exercise programs or anything of the like we will gladly support these efforts with local schools." Nezvesky said she, along with her partners Steve Krivoshik and Jedd Morin, saw a need in Fairfield County for Tumble Jungle as a way to promote children's fitness and wellbeing.
"As our culture increasingly advances in technology, our children increasingly become dependent upon technology for mental stimulation. This often times leaves children with inadequate time for physical activities. This, coupled with a varying New England climate, can leave children deprived of much-needed physical advancement."
`Kids don't get bored'
For Milford mother Lisa Farrell, My Gym offers her two-year-old son a good balance of structured circle time mixed with free play.
"Every time we go to the gym the equipment is changed around for a fun set up so the kids don't get bored," she said. Farrell, a life-long soccer player and former high school soccer coach, said fitness is important to instill early in a child's life, aiding in the physical, cognitive and emotional development. She said the structured, age-appropriate classes at My Gym offer kids a supportive, noncompetitive atmosphere.
"Children need to develop healthy lifestyles and going to a place like My Gym combines fitness and fun. It's not competitive and it shouldn't be because children are young, but it does encourage moving around and working on athletic skills."
Makayla Silva is a freelance writer. Makayla.email@example.com