While the idea of a new children’s gym opening up in Redmond may not turn too many heads, the concept behind the city’s newest “gym,” Great Play, is unique and extraordinary.
The facility, which is owned by former Microsoft employee Marie Maxwell, opened in June in downtown Redmond at Redmond Square Mall on Cleveland Street.
“I worked at Microsoft for about 14 years, then I left and decided that I wanted to do something that helped improve people’s lives in some capacity,” Maxwell said. “I was really exploring both the nutritional side and the physical development side because of the challenges everyone faces with weight. Developing habits early on will certainly help tackle that.”
One thing that separates Great Play from other gyms are video walls in the facility’s “Interactive Arena” that allow children to play age-appropriate games using a network of computers, projectors, video sensors and sound. Kids can kick virtual field goals through uprights with an interactive referee, burst balloons floating in the sky by throwing plastic wiffle balls, and knock virtual glass bottles off of a shelf without having to clean up afterwards.
Maxwell is good friends with Jyl and Keith Camhi, the founders of Great Play who originally developed the interactive programs for the birthday parties of their two young sons.
“Jyl was exploring children’s gyms, looking at all the franchises … those programs focused on gymnastics, karate, dance and things like that,” said Maxwell, a longtime Redmond resident. “There was nothing about teaching the basic skills of how to throw, kick, catch, and so on, especially for boys.
“She really saw a hole in the market for something like this: athletic development for both boys and girls.”
In addition to the video walls, the gym also features a large number of age-appropriate activities using different setups of various mats and props that change on a weekly basis. For the youngest kids, this might include a “teeter-totter” station to help improve balance and coordination, while the preschool-kindgarten age group’s activities (ages 3-5.5) will often feature kicking, jumping and introduction to sports like soccer and bowling.
“Each week we get a curriculum, a lesson plan, that goes through what the different activities are,” Maxwell said. “It’s very specific towards what we’re focusing on… at this age we’re teaching them a lot of basics without doing it in a sporty way, it’s more in a very fun and playful way.”
Maxwell said that making sure they’re having fun is what keeps them active, therefore positive reinforcement is a must, with minimal pressure put on winning.
In addition to the more carnival-like games available on the interactive screens, other activities have the ability to be a more educational experience combined with a physical activity, such as in the game “Feed the farm animals.”
“We’ll teach them how to do the overhand throw with bean bags, to hold it by their ear and talk like it’s a telephone,” Maxwell explained. “Then we’ll put images on the wall, and then we’ll say, ‘What is an animal that is shorter than you?’ and they might say, ‘hippopotamus,” and then they throw and feed the hippo.
“You’re teaching them, in a very creative way.”
Great Play’s curriculum for younger children is designed to give a comprehensive framework in stability and motor skills, while older, grade-school players can use those foundation skills to gain proficiency at actual sports.
Also unique to Great Play is the SCORE training methodology, which stands for “Success Continuously Reinforced and Extended.”
“SCORE basically takes a child and analyzes where they are in the development process,” Maxwell said. “We’ll break it down and do what we call ‘bite-size’ skill development so they have a positive experience of success.”
She also said that skill level can vary greatly even among elementary-age students, and that the coaches at Great Play have the ability to be more technical with budding young athletes if they seek an additional challenge.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
Great Play prides itself on its excellent camper-to-coach ratio, which is capped at 5-to-1, though most classes are running at an extraordinary rate of two or three kids to one coach. This high level of individual attention ensures that children are equally and actively involved in the class activities, and also lessens the chance of accidents and injury.
Maxwell said that there are always three coaches out on the floor regardless of class size, and one is always manning a station that may be a bit challenging for youngsters.
“I sent my coaches to Connecticut for five weeks of training,” Maxwell said. “They went to the (original) Great Play and worked with the founders on-site on techniques, how to teach a class, how to work with children, and all of our programs and safety precautions.”
The floor in the gym is also unique — and expensive. Using material imported from France, it has a 38 percent shock absoprtion rate, yet is till 90 percent as bouncy as a regular hardwood floor, so sports activities are minimally affected.
“It’s super-important because it’s going to reduce injury significantly,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell cited that the biggest issue safety-wise is to have activities that are age-appropriate to whatever group of youngsters is in the gym at the time, and that a spotless and germ-free gym is a priority at Great Play.
“We definitely don’t have equipment out or a climbing apparatus that would (increase) risk,” Maxwell said. “We clean everything, scrub the floor every day, and we have special mat cleaner that we use on a weekly basis that disinfects them. Cleanliness is something that we have a very big emphasis on.”
A NEW ERA
Maxwell believes that changing times calls for a different look on children’s fitness.
“I don’t think this was necessary 20 years ago. Today the world we live in is very different … children can’t as easily go out and ride their bike and play in the neighborhood like they did (before),” Maxwell said. “Indoors, they have a thousand television channels, video games that are super cool, and the Internet, which has endless things to do. This is about getting children active and physical again.”
She admitted that the children love the technology component of the interactive walls, but that they represent more of a guide than anything else. As owner and manager, Maxwell’s goal for every child that takes part in a Great Play camp or class is for them to “have a lot of fun and develop some skills, so they’ll leave the gym and be active outside the gym.”
She also hopes that the some of the games that are taught can be played at home in the neighborhood, and that usually shy children will have the newfound confidence to get into a game.
In its short history, Great Play has been a huge hit with local parents and their children.
“We came down for a free trial class, and Harry, my son, he just absolutely loved it, he had the time of his life,” said Katie Jones, a Redmond resident whose four-year-old son is enrolled in a three-day play camp. “He can’t wait to come in the mornings. I think it’s just a great mix of physical activity. I love the interactive screens on the wall, it just makes it so much fun.”
Registrations are now being taken for eight-week fall sessions beginning Sept. 1. Sessions cost $199 and include one 50-minute class per week, open gyms, $50 discounts on birthday parties and make-up classes.
The pilot Great Play location opened in Stamford, Conn. in 2006 to rave reviews. The new Redmond location represents the company’s first franchise location, some 2,500 miles away, due to Maxwell’s recommendation of the local vicinity as a prime location for the business. Although it took her close to a year to find the right spot for the facility’s current location because of the need for high ceilings, she believes it was well worth the effort to bring Great Play to the city of Redmond.
“I knew immediately the health-conscious, sports-oriented people of the Pacific Northwest would embrace this unique concept,” she said.