After a cheerful welcome and some warm-up exercises around a red mat, a group of excited toddlers dash off in different directions to choose their next activities. Several race for the nearby ball pit, some climb up the slide, and one gracefully walks across the balance beam. Others scatter further to the host of colorful equipment spread around the spacious facility.
No doubt, the energy and play options at My Gym UWS, a locally owned franchise of a global children’s fitness center, are fabulous. But the heart of the venue lies in its dedicated teachers who engage with the children, whether it’s by transforming a little car and some ramps into a thrilling roller coaster ride or by simply sitting on the floor and playing with them.
“We just love kids. We love playing with kids, we love watching them grow and helping them grow,” enthuses Katie Johnston, a teacher and Program Director at the Upper West Side location. Johnston had originally joined the My Gym team in Encino, California, for a fun day job while she pursued an acting career. Little did she know that she’d find herself enjoying her work so much that it would become her new focus when she moved back home to New York.
My Gym UWS owner Brian Davis took a very different route to the helm of the franchise. Though he once entertained the idea of working with My Gym as an entrepreneur and business school grad nearly a decade ago, he moved on to work as a consultant for McKinsey and at several financial firms instead. Fast forward to last year: Davis wanted to go back to entrepreneurship, and, serendipitously, My Gym was looking for a new owner of the Upper West Side location. With two-year-old Brooke at home then—plus three-month-old Riley now—being able to set his own office hours has been a big plus for Davis. And that’s not to mention how much Brooke, now 3.5, loves to attend classes and play in the gym. “When she says ‘My Gym,’ she means it literally,” he laughs.
For Davis, the key to a truly fun and safe venue like My Gym UWS is creating a non-competitive environment where children can learn about their bodies as well as how to use them and keep them healthy. “We’re not teaching kids to be great sportsmen; we’re teaching them to be good athletes,” says Davis. Programs concentrate on fundamentals—body control and awareness, agility, flexibility, balance, and cognitive and social skills—that prepare kids to succeed at any sport or activity.
Parents may be surprised to see that some of the crucial skills taught in My Gym UWS classes are not physical ones. Because socialization is critical to a child’s growth, it’s also heavily emphasized in the curriculum. This is where belonging to a parent corporation really comes with its benefits—the national organization stays up to date on developmental research and helps create age-appropirate programs accordingly.
Case in point: Children are most comfortable when they know what to expect, so every My Gym UWS class is organized around a standard sequence of events. Gymster participants, for example, always enjoy a special gymnastics activity at the same time during each class—like a Special Stairs session where they work on gross motor skills—though activities vary week by week. And while adults can concentrate for long periods, children have shorter attention spans, so some classes like yoga feature varied activities to re-engage young students constantly. “We’re focused more on how children learn, versus taking an adult class and bringing it down to a younger age,” says Davis.
The beauty of the individual franchise is that local ownership adds a more personal touch to the scientifically sound enterprise. “Being a franchise company delivers certain resources that we could never develop on our own, but we deliver that in a very community-type place,” says Davis—a nod to how teachers form a strong connection with students and their families (hugs and high-fives are common exchanges in and out of the facility).
All of My Gym UWS’s special programs contribute to forging this tightly knit community. The venue hosts unique birthday celebrations—with games, puppet shows, and music—to make each kid the center of attention on his or her special day. And just like Davis’ daughter, all My Gym UWS students can see the gym as their personal playground; they’re welcome to unlimited use of the facilities during any of the Free Play sessions.
And parents are just as important. Working moms and dads can experience what the kids have been practicing in class at evening Free Play sessions—or enjoy a well-deserved break thanks to My Gym UWS’s popular Parents’ Night Out program. “Parents need down time and they don’t want to feel guilty about it,” Davis says, and there’s no need to feel bad when you know your kids are enjoying enriching puppet shows and circle time. Even for regular classes, instructors have skill sheets that show parents what the classes are covering, plus activities to practice at home.
In the same family-friendly spirit, My Gym UWS is as sensitive to the changing needs of its clientele as it is to new education research. Knowing that separation was a great concern, the leaders added a new feature to younger classes: Caregivers are asked to move upstairs for a few minutes and watch their kids at a distance, letting them take a first step toward independence. Likewise, My Gym UWS chooses to maintain the same class schedule during the summer as the rest of the year because many parents like to keep the routine to which their children are accustomed.
The list of My Gym UWS’s nurturing and responsive programs goes on, but at the end of the day, the mantra here comes down to Johnston’s earnest words: “It’s really hard to have a bad day when you are surrounded by children who are happy to see you and are having fun.”
And we don’t have to take her word for it; the devoted students who return to My Gym UWS time and time again are the proof that’s in the pudding.
For more information, visit my-gym.com/nyc or call 212-724-3400.
Elisabeth Frankel Reed blogs regularly at newyorkfamily.com. She was born and raised in New York and loves exploring the city with her husband and two children, Brandon and Julia.