The thought of my two-year-old son on a trapeze only ever existed in my nightmares - until I visited My First Gym, Abu Dhabi's first fitness club for babies, toddlers and children. It offers classes for mums and children ages six months to 13 years and has been causing something of a buzz around town.
Located on the corner of Delma and Muroor streets, the facility is co-owned and run by Bianca Belghith, who has six years experience working in a children's gym in the US and three years experience as the chairman of a kindergarten in Abu Dhabi. She has always dreamt of setting up a children's facility. "I knew that no matter where I decided to call home, I wanted to make my dream happen," says the mother of two, who is originally from Jamaica.
My son Sam and I arrive for the age-appropriate Darters and Dashers class on a Tuesday morning. He is immediately fascinated by the children's gym equipment and the climbing frame, ball pit and trampoline, and has to be lured back to the carpet, where Belghith does a singing and storytelling activity.
A series of tunnels is set up for the children to scramble through. Four swings are suspended from the ceiling so they can swing back and forth. And then the trapeze comes out. The look on the children's faces as they are swung by their arms (which are held by Belghith and her assistant, Sabri) is one of pure delight. There are bars along which the children can walk to practise their balance. Then parents lay on their backs and swing their toddlers through the air, flipping them over using their feet.
Each activity only lasts a few minutes - about the length of a toddler's attention span - and there is plenty of time between for the children to discover the place on their own, burying themselves in the ball pit, clambering on the climbing frame and, in the case of my son, repeatedly yanking at the handles on the rowing machine.
By the end, after being on the move for the entire hour, Sam is exhausted. The activities, Belghith says, are all structured around each age group's developmental goals. "Everything in the class, from beginning to end, from manipulative skills to listening activities to the games that we play, all stimulate them at a whole different level from what they get at home," she says. "It's fun but they're also learning."
Although it's not a huge space, the room is cleverly set up so that there is plenty for the children to do without it being cluttered. And its soft blue carpet not only prevents accidents but also absorbs much of the noise - a bonus for us parents. "Every week, the set-up changes," says Belghith. "Not just the structure of the activities but also how everything is set up in the room. All the equipment is designed to work on their gross motor skills, so hanging, swinging, climbing, balancing, going under things, over things and so on."
Our increasingly inactive lifestyles mean that it is more important than ever to help children work on their physical development, Belghith says. "Children aren't as mobile as they used to be. My two-year-old can sit down and play with my iPhone or iPad for an hour, so something like this is so important for them and is really lacking in this day and age."
Among the classes My First Gym offers is Energizers Club, aimed at children ages 7 to 13, specifically those who are overweight, and Teen Yoga, the first of its kind in the city. "Teenagers are going through a lot of stuff," says Belghith, "and yoga helps improve their concentration and builds their self-esteem."
Even mothers are looked after, with adult salsa, zumba, belly dancing and yoga classes, as well as prenatal yoga. "I wanted somewhere where mums can come before they even have children," Belghith says, "so they get into the routine of coming to My First Gym and then, after they have their children, they're still in that routine. It's somewhere that takes care of the whole family together."
They also offer capoeira and ballet classes for children, host private birthday parties and will be hosting a summer camp, the details of which will be announced soon.
"The idea of a children's gym is a new concept here," says Belghith. "We have had a really great response. Many people don't understand what we do, though, which is why we offer a free trial session, so that people can see that it's a gym but it's fun at the same time."
For more information, visit www.myfirstgymuae.com
Five activities kids can do at home
• Play a game of catch, which helps work on hand-eye coordination. And with the summer coming, this is something you can do both inside and out.
• Clean up doing different skills such as hopping, jogging or dancing, all of which work on children's gross motor skills.
• Play freeze dance. Dance until the music stops, when you have to freeze. This works on listening skills as well as body awareness.
• Relay races are a great way to get kids to burn off steam, whether you are indoors or out. It also encourages teamwork.
• Act out a children's storybook. Everyone can join in and you can even put on a show later.