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Ritalin seem tempting? YMCA lets kids be kids

Seven children thunder around a gymnasium, running, then skipping.

"Okay. Now stop and give me 10 jacks," says instructor Candace Thomason. "Now you're the leader, Cameron. You decide what we're going to do."

To these kids, ages 6, 7 and 8, it's a raucous game of follow the leader. To their parents, it's a chance for their children to get excited about exercise, build confidence, and get activities and attention they don't get in PE class at school. The Kid Fit class is led by a certified personal trainer at the new Jim and Heather Gills YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. There's also a Kid Fit class for ages 9-12.

The program is one of many offerings for children at the new Y. There are swim classes for ages 6 months to 14 years, parent and baby exercise classes, basketball leagues, rock climbing classes, birthday party venues, homework help, teen kickboxing and family activity nights.

Even the large child care room features a climbing corner with nets, slides and tunnels that rivals the playgrounds at fast food restaurants. Any child would have fun at this Y.

Family memberships are $100 to join, then $50 a month. Each session of eight classes costs about $20 for members, around $40 for non-members. But the YMCA is eager to offer scholarships in the form of complete family memberships or just a class here and there, depending on what you apply for.

"We award anywhere from 10 percent to 95 scholarship assistance," said executive director Karen Galinowski. "Most people can get a scholarship if they have the need."

Applications require income documentation, but the Y, which receives United Way funding, also considers the number of children in a family and family budget constraints such as high medical expenses. So far, 66 scholarships have been awarded.

Now back to the children's programs.

Each Kid Fit class meets twice a week for an hour. Thomason focuses on a different muscle each week, telling the group where the muscle is and how it works. Then they do drills or play games that use that muscle.

"I try to put education in it, but mostly I want them to have more play," she said. As times have changed, many kids today don't wander freely around their neighborhood playing ball or capture the flag after school as their parents might have done. And their PE classes at school are big and often just 30 minutes long.

Kid Fit is for all types of children: the ones who are overweight, the ones who aren't crazy about PE, and the ones who can't get enough of PE. The facilities at the YMCA and Thomasan's coaching style seem to make all kids love the class.

She has the energy and gusto of a serious trainer but throws in plenty of pats on the back and tickles on the tummy to put the children at ease.

"You'll get it next time, buddy," and "That's the way to do it, sweetie," she'll say. When Thomason mixes up the names of identical twin boys in the class, she has to drop and give them 10 pushups. But when she gets the names right, it's their turn to drop.

The kids get a calendar each week with daily activities that prompt exercise and healthy habits at home. It calls for things like a walk around the block counting animals or getting the whole family to eat a piece of fruit after dinner.

Haley Wilson, age 7, is sad the four-week session is almost over.

"We wanted her to have a structured fitness program," her father, Jim Wilson, said. "This is something that is fun and has variety."

"This is the only fitness program for kids her age," said Sylvia Raymond, referring to her 8-year-old daughter, Chloe. "I want her to get fit and healthy. This class is very well rounded. Candace is great with the kids because she's like a coach and a friend."

Chloe also is taking Introduction to Climbing for 6- to 9-year-olds. Each student has a guide who helps pull him or her up the climbing wall with harnesses and ropes as the children grab and step on brightly colored rocks.

For $75, you can host birthday parties for ages 6 and up on the climbing wall and have 15 little kids dangling from ropes high above you.

You also can have a birthday party at the Gills YMCA pool, complete with its spiraling water slide, or in the gymnasium with every type of ball and game available. The cost is also $75 for a maximum of 15 children.

Bitty Basketball meets Saturdays and is open to children in kindergarten to second grade. Girls and boys play together as they learn basketball basics through drills and scrimmages.

For the youngest exercisers, the Y offers Mommy and Me classes as well as Daddy and Me classes. Parents and their little ones _ infants to 3-year-olds _ do playful exercises together.

I'm impressed that the YMCA is forward thinking enough to give dads their own class on Saturday mornings. But it's shortsighted that the Mommy and Me class meets on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 10 a.m., precluding full-time working moms from taking part.

Some kids who don't join the Gills YMCA or apply for scholarships will still get to use the new facility. The Y-Achievers program meets three days a week after school at Trinity United Methodist Church, where volunteer tutors help them on school work as well as learning habits and self-esteem.

"As a reward for attending regularly or good grades, those volunteers can say: "We're all going to the Y to spend Saturday afternoon on the water slide in the pool,' " Galinowski said. An after-school recreational program at the French Villa Housing Complex that is funded by the housing authority and staffed by the YMCA also will bring children to the YMCA for field trips, she said.

For more information on membership or scholarships, call (727) 328-9622.

If you ever wonder who is in control at your house _ children or parents _ child psychologist John Rosemond has plenty to tell you. The nationally syndicated columnist and author will be in town Monday to present three talks on how to be better parents. Each session costs $15, with discounts for teachers. He will speak at the Canterbury School of Florida, at 901 58th Ave. NE. Call 595-6724 for more information or visit www.rosemond.com.

_ You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviacharaol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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