Heather Peavey, Associate Editor
Adults only, pleaseThe way Beacon Hill Athletic Clubs, with locations in Boston, Brookline, Brighton, Newton and Wellesley, Mass., accommodates children in their locker rooms is simple: They don't. Mark Rowe, general manager, says children are allowed in a Beacon Hill Athletic Club only in one location, and only for day care. "Other than that, members must be 18 years or older," he says.
Children bring a host of problems into any fitness facility, says Rowe. "Some of the challenges faced are safety issues with unattended children, disruptive behavior, which adversely affects other members' fitness experiences, [and] the pressure of making sure parents police their children," he says. By designating Beacon facilities as adults-only, "you can ensure a level of maturity that will transcend to a more relaxed and stress-free atmosphere for our members," says Rowe. "The upside to this policy is it prevents any potentially uncomfortable situations in the locker rooms."
This hard-and-fast policy does expose Beacon Hill Athletic Clubs to being labeled "family-unfriendly," but Rowe believes it's worth the risk. "A facility is better off being great at accommodating one population, rather than being mediocre at accommodating all populations," he says. If a potential member questions the policy, management's up-front, matter-of-fact attitude usually diffuses any irritation. "We just explain that we are not set up to accommodate children, and our membership base prefers an adult atmosphere," says Rowe.
For fitness centers considering a policy switch, the key to success is standing your ground. "Once the decision is made to go adults-only, it is important to adhere to all policies without any wavering," says Rowe. "The management and staff need to be considerate to the concerns of the members, but stress the benefits of an adults-only facility." This attitude has served Beacon Hill Athletic Clubs well. "We have had little resistance to this policy for our 19 years of operation," says Rowe. "Members appreciate being able to work out without any of the distractions that children can create."
Family locker roomsBanning children may not be the solution for many fitness centers, particularly those that serve a lot of families. Linda Mathis, membership coordinator of the Niles Family Fitness Center, Niles, Ill., says that it's "extremely important" that her facility accommodates children, so it offers a family locker room. "As our name says, we are a family fitness center," she says. "[Our family locker room] gives all our families with young children a safe, friendly environment where they can change and get ready for fitness classes, swim lessons or swimming parties. There is no reason that any parent should have to send their child into a locker room alone and be worried about them."
Space. Facilities planning a family locker room should approach the project from a different perspective than with adult-only locker rooms. "Quality use of space is essential," says Mathis. "Make sure that the lockers and changing areas are big enough to accommodate a family's many items, or items that a ... person with physical limitations may need." Other considerations are an additional workload on staff. "You will need to patrol this area, as people who may not need this locker room will want to use it, leading to ... a space issue."
Maintenance. An additional locker room may make you a hero to parents in your facility, but it may have the opposite effect on your maintenance staff. "In the first place, it is an extra locker room to clean," says Mathis. "While most clubs have to contend with two locker rooms, we are throwing a third one in the mix. The family locker room can become quite messy at times. Parents, children, clothing, bags and towels can all add up in a small space. The locker room attendant has quite a job seeing that things are kept dry (from wet swimsuits) and clean.
Rules. Family locker rooms should have a set of posted rules. "The rules are consistent as to why this type of locker room was built," says Mathis. "It is not to be used by boys and girls unaccompanied by an adult. Children [aged] nine and under must be accompanied by a parent/adult at least 14 years old." Adults without children cannot use the locker room, except those with physical limitations who may need help from someone of the opposite gender. No "lounging" in the area. Because of space issues, people need to get in and get out.
Not all parents (or their children) will follow these rules, however, and it is tempting for staff to step in and impose some order. In most cases, Mathis recommends against this. "With very young children, we try not to get in the habit of putting our staff in that position," she says. "If anything, we try to address our concerns with the parent, asking them to please ask the child to sit nicely, don't climb the stairs, don't play with the handicapped door, etc."
There are times when enforcing the family locker room rules in unavoidable. "We do have children who have memberships to the club and do not have to be accompanied by an adult. Should they not obey the rules, we can and we have suspended their membership until the parent or guardian meets with the director and determines what the best outcome will be for all concerned," says Mathis. "For children who do not have memberships but who can access the gym and pool, ... they [are] asked to leave immediately for the day. If the behavior continues, they will not be allowed in the building at all [in the future]. When children are involved, we try our best to make sure a parent is contacted."
Imposing age limitsEven fitness centers with family locker rooms experience problems with the expected youthful exuberance and noise that accompany children. "Not all members and guests are happy with the commotion and noise that comes from having children being excited and having fun," says Mathis. "Not all members and guests with small children use the locker room that is designated for them. Some still insist on bringing their small child into the adult locker room, upsetting other adults." For these facilities — and in those where there is no available space or budget for a family locker room — a simple solution is imposing locker room age limits. What isn't so simple, however, is determining what that age should be. Those interviewed for this article, and those who responded to an e-Letter question about children in locker rooms, offered cutoff ages for children using adult locker rooms ranging from three to 10 years old.
Expert opinions. Some managers consult experts to arrive at the cutoff age. Jan Rubins, general manager and owner of LifeCenter Plus Health and Fitness Center, Hudson, Ohio, says a JCC she worked at had "doctors, psychologist[s] and psychiatrists examine the effects of the kids in locker rooms of the opposite sex. The decision, and one that I have used since then, is that we allow kids through the age of four to go into the locker room of the opposite sex (if necessary, with their parent). After that age, we do not allow it." That jives with the rule at Niles Family Fitness Center. "Children four years old or older must use the same-sex locker room only," says Mathis.
Gut instincts. Other managers go with their gut. "When we did our recent renovation, we added a family changing room (a large closet with a small table and chair) to each locker room so that parents could assist young kids in private. We decided 10 years old was the maximum age for opposite-sex kids in the locker room," says Owner of Elevations Health Club, Scotrun, Pa., Rob Bishop. "When a kid is older than 10, they should be self-sufficient." Michael Briehler, president of PEAC Health & Fitness, Ewing, N.J., decided that age three was an appropriate cutoff for children in the opposite gender's locker rooms. "We evaluated the concerns and the assumed comprehension levels based on age and came up with the age of three," he says. "Under three, the children are typically dependent on their parent and most likely gender is not a defined or known difference. Expressed concerns from uncomfortable members was when a male child was in the woman's locker room, possibly observing the newness of exposed bodies."
Still, other managers eschew age cutoffs altogether. "I have found that stating an age cut-off doesn't work," says Sharen, the facility coordinator at her fitness center in Lakewood, Colo. Instead, the facility has signs posted at all entrances to locker rooms and the family locker room that state, "We encourage parents with young children of opposite sex, who need help with showering and dressing, to use our family locker room. All others, please use the appropriate locker room. Our signage isn't 100 percent, but it helps," she says.
Mathis agrees that signage can go a long way toward directing traffic, and engendering some tolerance for children. "It is important that all members and guests who utilize the club and the locker rooms know that children, accompanied by an adult, may be in the locker room," she says. "A statement of this type must be placed on signs before entering the locker room, and on all brochures, etc."
Meeting in the middleWhen a family locker room is not an option, and the headaches from enforcing age restrictions send managers reaching for the medicine cabinet, there is hope. Fitness centers can make the most of their existing locker rooms by carving out space for kids. "The fitness center [could] designate an area of the locker room as a child changing area, possibly partitioning the area off with curtains," says Mathis. "Depending on the flow of the club, certain times can be designated as 'Children Locker Room' times, when the club is at its peak for children's programming."
If those options won't satisfy members who demand complete privacy from children's prying eyes, hope remains. Briehler says, "We are a larger facility, but known to be an adult facility. With that, many women had issues with children in the locker room. It [was] usually just to accompany the mother, but some women felt uncomfortable. Even with private changing rooms in the women's locker room, some of our members were insisting [on] a 'no children' policy." So, the fitness center restricted children in the locker area with age limits. It also designated "an oversized bathroom, separate from the locker room area, for parents who need to change a child or assist them in using the toilet," says Briehler. The bathroom is 10 by 8 feet, and located adjacent to the entry door. "[It is] somewhat concealed to offer privacy, and also provides an alternative bathroom facility for members," says Briehler. "The size allows a parent with multiple children the ability to take them all in and keep them together, if that is necessary."
Interestingly, though not reserved for families, that bathroom has helped the facility enforce its age-limit policy. "Instead of just saying, 'no,' we have an alternative location for child bathroom assistance, or change of clothing for a youth activity when an opposite-gender parent is present."
Decision timeYes, children are our future. But they shouldn't be the cause of future headaches for facility staff and management. Listen to your members, consider what effects your locker room situation is having on retention numbers and find ways to accommodate children in your facility — or not.
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