The Little Gym may be an international franchise, but the Shaker Heights location is just that: a Shaker institution focused on the children of the city.
By Zachary Lewis
The color scheme, equipment, and basic layout resemble those of other Little Gyms around the world, but spend any time in the gym with its directors, instructors, or owner Paula Pascarella and you’ll find a place that’s proudly Shaker-centric, where friendships are made. “You don’t walk in and see a franchise,” says instructor Samantha Polmanteer, a former collegiate swimmer with obvious affection for her job. “You walk in and see a comfortable place. We’re a staple here in Shaker. We become friends with the families.”
Like all its chain affiliates, the now 13-year-old Shaker Heights Little Gym centers on a large, padded room outfitted with balance beams, springboards, and parallel bars, and accepts everyone from infants as young as four months old to middle-schoolers aged 12.
There are classes intended for little ones and parents to take together and programs designed to get budding gymnasts ready for competition, and a great deal for everyone in between.
In summer, the offerings are slimmer, as children travel or go to camp. In fall, winter, and spring, however, the place is hopping. Literally.
The Little Gym’s primary objective is “Serious Fun.” Its goal is to develop sports and dance skills in a friendly, encouraging environment. Only if a child sticks with the programs and truly aspires to compete do coaches get into the business of honing athletes.
“It’s all about doing your best. This is a place where your child can be herself,” says instructor Katy Higaki. Physical skills aren’t the only priorities. Gymnastics and dance may be the medium, but much of the message is cognitive, social, and artistic.
Even as the coaches lead children in games, tumbling exercises, and other fun movements, they’re also instilling academic knowledge and teaching patience and problem solving. They even address personal responsibility. One branch of The Little Gym’s “Three Dimensional Learning” philosophy is called Citizen Kid, meaning emotional and leadership skills. There’s a reason the coaches think of themselves as teachers.
“We hide the work within the play,” says gym director Darnell Wilson. “We have to amp up our game to keep them interested. Getting kids to be social, that’s a big one for us.”
Just as The Little Gym is much more than a gym, so is the adjective “little” a bit of a misnomer. Over the course of a typical non-summer week, some 650 kids pass through its doors, and Wilson, Polmanteer, Higaki, and others come to know every one of their names.
That number is increasing, too. As society in general grows more health conscious, more parents in Shaker are taking steps to keep their kids active.
“It’s changing all around the community,” Wilson says. “It’s like an uprising, an upwelling of good.”