Kids in Gyms: 7 Frequently Asked Questions Answered

Health clubs can attract whole families when they offer children's programming. Discover how to get started while ensuring the safety of kids in your club.

Did you know three out of four adolescents (aged 11-17 years) do not meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global recommendations—60 minutes daily—for physical activity? When your gym offers programming for kids, you're doing a huge service to the health and well-being of your community.

Gyms that traditionally have never offered programs for people under 18 years old may be asking themselves where to start. Well, right here.

To help clubs like yours provide quality children's programming that integrates modern technology, we've put together the answers to these questions:

  1. How can my club create a family-friendly atmosphere?
  2. What should I offer to kids of different ages?
  3. How do I find the right staff to run programs for kids and teens?
  4. What age is best for adolescents to become full-fledged members?
  5. Which locker room should children use?
  6. What steps do we need to take to make sure families feel safe in the club?
  7. How has technology impacted kids presence or programming in the club?

Between this article and the information in our free for members Keeping Kids Safe in Your Club briefing paper and Getting Kids Active in the School and Community e-book, you'll be well on your way to starting a kick-butt kids program in your club.

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1. How can my club create a family-friendly atmosphere?

Offer services that enable and incentivize kids to spend more time at the club, outside of child or day care time.

Create Dedicated Spaces and Activities for Kids

Make going to the club with their parents fun. Take Rochester Athletic Club's (RAC) The Neighborhood—categorized as a Family Entertainment Center—that the club modeled after a traditional neighborhood.

The Neighborhood includes a cityscape facade with a street and a central park with room for sports and games. There is also a cushioned basketball court, which is lined and used for pickleball, basketball, or other games. In winter, three inflatables fill the basketball court every other weekend:

  • an obstacle course,
  • a giant super slide,
  • and a bounce house.

The space also includes batting cages, synthetic ice for practicing hockey, a ball pit, climbing stations, mini golf, Xbox Kinect, and other free play accessories.

Teach Sports Kids Can Play in Your Club Through Adulthood

Your club can embrace a family environment by teaching kids a sport they can play in your club through adulthood, as does Genesis Health Clubs with their "10 and Under Tennis" program. “10 and Under Tennis” is a nationally recognized program created by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) which promotes tennis to kids of all ages 10 and under by sizing the tennis product to meet the needs of that age group.

The mission is to teach kids a sport they can use for the rest of their lives, introduced in an environment that is mostly play oriented. The child can continue playing tennis throughout their life—potentially at your club—which is a program you can offer that grows with your member's and their family.

Consider a Preschool Program at Your Club

The Atlantic Club in New Jersey offers a preschool program at their club. Atlantis Prep School at the Atlantic Club runs from ages 18 months through first grade. Operating out of a second building but still as part of the club, the preschool functions like a traditional school, meaning the club has to follow state guidelines and meet state licensing requirements. The school offers academics as well as gym classes and yoga, and kids ages 4 and up have an activity curriculum that includes swimming, tennis, and other physical activities. The school also offers cultural education, including art, technology, Spanish, and music.

For parents juggling multiple schedules, the preschool offers before- and after-school programs that allow parents the flexibility to extend their child's day at the school, giving parents more time in that busy part of their day. In addition to the school, the club offers after-school enrichment clubs, which kids can still participate in even after graduation.

If your club decides to offer short-term child care options, follow the National Health and Safety Performance Standards’ for Early Care and Education Programs. These include:

  • maintaining the proper worker-to-child ratio;
  • controlling access to the kids area and removing points of isolation;
  • and always having at least two adults in the room with any child.

Children should never be alone with just one staffer, for both the child’s safety and the adult’s liability.

2. What should I offer to kids of different ages?

Clubs have a great opportunity to cater to children from infancy to adulthood.

6 Weeks to 6 Years

The RAC has a nursery they refer to as Kids Club for younger children ages 6 weeks to 6 years. The Kids Club offers:

  • crafts,
  • story time,
  • and a variety of toys geared to infants through preschool children.

Behind Kids Club is the RAC’s preschool play area providing a place for parents and young children to play. It offers small playground equipment, a small climbing structure, and other games.

7 to 12 Years

"Seven to twelve-year-olds can be a very challenging age group for health clubs," says RAC General Manager Brent Frueh. "There's a lot of evidence that suggests that society is over programming youth and they're specializing in activities at a young age.”

Frueh believes it is time to figure out new ways to allow kids to be kids while being active at the same time, and that club operators should look into how they provide a safe environment for parents and children. The RAC has many fee-based programs, which are "very important" to RAC's operation.

However, Frueh says, "[The RAC's] success also relies on the opportunities we provide at no additional charge.” Pointing out that in The Neighborhood something as simple as a free space for children to build forts with mats is one of the most popular areas.

The Claremont Club offers a fitness-based recreation and socialization program with a curriculum designed to foster learning from play. Building character, treating all friends and adults with compassion, and being kind is a consistent theme across all the clubs' youth programs.

Over 13 Years

The Claremont Club in Claremont, CA, offers kids and teens a wide range of opportunities catered to their age group. At age 14, kids go through a safety and etiquette lesson plan, and if they pass, they can use the club as adults.

Learn more about these programs in the Getting Kids Active in the School and Community e-book.

“[The RAC's] success also relies on the opportunities we provide at no additional charge.”

Brent Frueh

Rochester Athletic Club - Minnesota

3. How do I find the right staff to run programs for kids and teens?

Finding the right person to run your kids programming is crucial to your program’s success. From tennis to fitness to active play, it is important to staff programs with people who:

  • enjoy working with kids,
  • are passionate about what they do,
  • and have experience with the type of program the club is running.

Bill Parisi, founder and director of Parisi Speed School, notes that staffing can be one of the biggest barriers to getting involved with kids programming. “If you find the right staff you’re going to be 80% there," says Parisi. "If you find the wrong staff it doesn’t matter the program, it’s not going to work.”

That's why it's crucial to hire people that like being around and who want to coach and mentor kids. Parisi knows these kinds of people are not always easy to find. His advice is to always be in hiring mode and to have a system you can go back to, and encourage constant, open dialogue and communication in real time.

If you make sure everyone understands the objectives of your business and their job responsibilities, then you're on your way to having a fantastic kids program at your club.

Hiring the right people is key to the children's programs at the Claremont Club, according to President and CEO Mike Alpert, and he says their interview process is fundamental because the staff set the tone.

"We interview differently but are very choosy with our staff," says Alpert. "The dynamic between the staff and the children is to me the absolute thing." To Alpert, you can have the best programming and curriculum, but if the staff doesn't implement your programs with excitement and get kids involved, then it's not a successful program.

4. What age is best for adolescents to become full-fledged members?

Children and teens ages 6 to 17 need at least 60 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. According to the American Council on Exercise, children can begin their journey with lifting weights around the age of 7 or 8, or as soon as they understand how to follow directions.

However, children should never be doing scaled down versions of adult exercising. Often children’s fitness goals can be accomplished through play like a game of tag. We recommend aligning your exercise program to the CDC’s recommendations for children’s exercise. To avoid injury, children—like adults—should be taught proper form before adding any sort of weight exercise.

When adolescents can get out on the adult exercise floor varies from gym to gym, but your club should have a written policy on the age and allowed activities for members of all ages. This should clearly define the age requirements and expectations as well as the expected amount of supervision for different activities. You could consult a pediatrician to give your policy extra validity.

5. Which locker room should children use?

Many club operators struggle with allowing small children in opposite-gender locker rooms. While most would agree it would be unsafe to leave small children unattended in a locker room, others express concerns about the invasion of privacy children may pose. To best manage this issue, IHRSA recommends:

  • Offer free, short-term babysitting (approximately 20 minutes) while a parent showers or changes.
  • Establish an age restriction governing children in opposite-gender locker rooms. If possible, consult a physician to give your club’s policy added credibility.
  • If an age restriction isn’t imposed, post signs asking parents to use discretion when bringing opposite-sex children into the locker room.

Additionally, if a family feels uncomfortable taking their child into adult changing rooms, consider making a private or single-occupancy space available as an alternative. Businesses are not obligated to provide privacy accommodations, such as a privacy screen, curtained area, or private changing room. However, if your club chooses to do so, it must make such accommodations available on the same terms and in the same manner to all patrons.

6. What steps do we need to take to make sure families feel safe in the club?

The more information you are able to provide to prospective families, the safer and more secure they will feel in your ability to care for their children safely. Demonstrate in your literature and preparation that you are informed and capable.

If your club includes a pool, you should take extra steps to limit liability and protect younger club members. Drowning is one of the leading causes of unintentional, injury-related death among children ages 1 to 14-years-old. As such, you should post clear, bold signs explaining rules and warnings about pool use at each entrance to your club's pool. Also, ensure your employees are aware of the swimming abilities of all children that have access to your pool as some water features and activities may attract kids who do not know how to swim.

7. How has technology impacted kids presence or programming in the club?

In many ways, technology has helped improve children’s safety within clubs as well as reduce club liability. Technology like keypad locks and codes to enter the child care area ensure children are safe in your club.

Electronic check-in technologies such as KidCheck, simplify child care drop-off and pick up by creating matching security stickers for both parent and child to wear to verify the correct child is picked up by the appropriate adult. Technologies like these allow health clubs offering these services instant access to contact information, allergy information, as well as who is authorized as a guardian to pick up the child. The authorized pick-up list is especially critical to preventing parental/familial kidnapping during custody battles.

One of the biggest positives of technology is the enhanced communication from providers to parents. In many places, parents can now tap into a live feed on their phones of the child care center to check in visually on their child. When children are in a club’s day care and experience distress or require assistance going to the bathroom, parents can easily be texted or notified.

Opening your club’s doors to welcome kids and adolescents will require a few extra considerations. However, the benefits, both for your club and community, make it worth considering.

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Alexandra Black Larcom @ihrsagetactive

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, is the Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy for IHRSA. She spends her days working on resources and projects that help IHRSA clubs offer effective health programs in their communities, and convincing lawmakers that policies promoting exercise are an excellent idea. Outside the office you'll most likely find Alex at the gym, running on the Charles River, or, in the fall, by a TV cheering on the Florida Gators.