Move Over, Romper Room: All the Best Babies Come to Boogie at Joan Barnes' Gymboree

updated 09/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The church hall in San Mateo, Calif. is bustling with toddlers. While attentive moms and a few dads hover protectively, the kids climb with wobbly legs onto a miniature bridge or slip down diminutive slides. They flip lightweight balls through dwarf basketball hoops and gather on a multicolored parachute to enjoy a gently undulating ride (photo, left). At the conclusion of the "workout," each is rewarded with a kiss from a pop-up toy-on-a-stick called "Gymbo the Clown."

Similar scenes are repeated in weekly 45-minute sessions at 129 Gymboree franchises across the land where tiny tots gather in rented churches, synagogues and community centers for "purposeful play." In eight years of operation about 170,000 youngsters have passed through the program, including the offspring of George Lucas, Peggy Fleming, Shaun Cassidy, David Carradine and Kenny Rogers. For the kinetic kiddies Gymboree may just be fun time, but for their parents it has more serious objectives. "Children at this age learn through their bodies," says Joan Barnes, 37, Gymboree's founder. "So having good body awareness and exploring motor skills will give them the best natural self-image they can have."

The program, which entails 12 weekly meetings (at $4-$8 per class, depending on location), is divided into three age categories. In the first, Baby-gym, for infants 3 months to a year, "we do baby boogies—we exercise them to chants and songs," Barnes says. Then comes Gymboree, for toddlers from 1 to 2½ years old. "To satisfy that age group's incredible nonstop energy and need to explore—we have them climb and crawl through tunnels," she explains. The seniors (up to age 4) go on to Gymgrad. They do "wee workouts" based on rhythm and motion. Kids at this stage of development, according to Barnes, "like to do things as
a group and work cooperatively."

If all this sounds like the latest, most precious manifestation of the American fitness craze, Barnes is quick to deny it. "We are not little Jane Fonda workouts," she says. "Our goal is not physical fitness. It's self-esteem. These children are mastering skills at their own pace with the love and support of their parents. Everyone wants a confident child."

In fact, says Barnes, the daughter of a real-estate broker in Winnetka, Ill., the Gymboree concept grew out of her own effort to be "the best damned parent around." That quest began after she and husband Bill, a former journalist who is now a partner in a political consulting firm, moved from New York to Mill Valley, Calif. in 1973. After becoming a homemaker and starting a family, Joan felt isolated and "overwhelmed by motherhood." So the 1969 graduate of Briarcliff College (with a major in dance and a minor in recreation administration) read up furiously on children. Says Joan, "I learned that before a child can read or write a child must have body awareness and a sense of spatial relationships. The best thing you can do for your children is to let them experience the world through movement and exploration. It's important to put them in a situation in which they can succeed."

Barnes first tested her theories when she persuaded a Jewish community center in San Rafael to allocate $500 for equipment to launch her toddler classes. "It was an immediate success," Joan says. "People were dying for this sort of thing. There were 75 parents and children right off. Later it dawned on me that this had commercial potential."

Today the working wife and mother (two daughters) heads a corporation grossing $3 million a year. She no longer teaches Gymboree classes but spends much of her time on the road interviewing prospective franchise owners, each of whom is required to invest in at least two locations at $10,000-$14,000 per. While business success provides Barnes with such niceties as a Victorian-style home and a fancy car (Jaguar), she warns franchise buyers against going into the program to get rich. "Gymboree is a cross between a business and a cause you believe in," she advises. "If you just want to make money, buy an ice cream franchise."

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