Whether she's a tot who loves to tumble or an Olympic hopeful, your child can learn a lot from the sport of gymnastics.
The basics: Both men and women compete in gymnastics. Each group has a series of events they must perform. At competitions, judges award points for their performance of these skills. For women, these are: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. Men's gymnastic events are floor exercise, still rings, pommel horse, vault, parallel bars, and horizontal (high) bar. Athletes also compete in rhythmic gymnastics, trampoline and tumbling, acrobatics, and group gymnastics. Read more about the different types of gymnastics.
Age kids can start: 18 months to 2 years old for toddler tumbling classes; 3 to 4 years old for beginning gymnastics (including an introduction to some gym equipment). Competition begins at about age 7 (see Levels, below).
Skills needed/used: Strength, balance, flexibility, grace, self-motivation and determination.
Best for kids who are: Self-confident; the pressure of competition can be intense and judging is subjective. Although many elite gymnasts are petite, your child can still enjoy gymnastics if he or she is taller.
Season/when played: Kids can take classes and compete year-round (school teams traditionally compete in winter).
Team or individual? Both; gymnasts compete in individual events to accrue points for their team.
Levels: As beginners, children usually take classes with other kids their age. As they progress, the gym or club will group them into levels based on ability. Competitive gymnasts progress through a series of levels (from 4 to 10 followed by Elite).
USA Gymnastics (USAG) has talent development programs for boys and girls and also for its rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline and tumbling programs. At about 7 years of age, young gymnasts can be tested at local, state, and national levels to qualify for these programs (for the men’s gymnastics Future Stars program, testing begins at age 10). These are feeder programs for the national and Olympics teams.
Colleges and universities also offer both recreational and competitive gymnastics programs.
Appropriate for kids with special needs Yes. In levels 1 and 2, USAG’s TeamGym program is available to kids with disabilities and special needs. The Special Olympics also has programs in rhythmic and artistic gymnastics.
Fitness factor: High, especially as kids progress (beginners may spend more time waiting for their turn with a piece of equipment or an instructor). Gymnastics is a full-body physical activity that requires strength, flexibility, and balance.
Equipment: Most is supplied by the gym or school where gymnasts train. Participants need appropriate workout clothing and may also purchase special leotards and other team gear (such as bags or sweat suits) for competitions. Advanced gymnasts may use handgrips (for uneven or high bars) and balance beam shoes.
Costs: Approximately $10-20/session for beginning gymnastic lessons; costs increase significantly for older or elite competitors, depending on fees for training, travel, and competitions.
Time commitment required: As with most youth sports, time commitment grows exponentially as players rise up the ranks to elite competitions. Beginners may have just one practice and/or class per week, while more accomplished athletes will practice several days a week for three to four hours a day.
The Amateur Athletic Union offers a recreational program that includes competition but is not as big of a time commitment as USAG programs.
Potential for injury: Medium to high. Although most gyms and instructors have a strong commitment to safety and use protective equipment such as mats, there is always a risk of falls (from beams, bars, etc.). Repetitive stress injuries are also a significant problem for young athletes who train too aggressively.
How to find a program:
Governing body: USA Gymnastics