Creating a fitness program for children can benefit them and your facility.

The childhood obesity rate in the U.S. is alarming. Promoting an active lifestyle to children is a great way to improve their future, and that of your fitness center. One way to promote an active lifestyle among children is to offer after-school fitness programs at your facility.

So, how do you go about starting an after-school program? David Coffey, general manager of Lakeshore Athletic Club, FlatIron, Colo., did it by building "a club within a club." The Kidshore program was designed before the main facility was even built in 2003, so the children of the community have their very own fitness center. "They have their own entrance, their own wing of the building, family locker rooms, pathways through the club and a kids-only gym," says Coffey. "This is the place to be if you have kids. The adults stay because the kids just don't want to leave. It's had a very positive impact on our enrollment numbers." Kidshore has devoted considerable real estate to their program. In fact, after being open only two years, they've had to double the size of the facility to more than 20,000 square feet just to accommodate all of the children. "We have roughly 2,400 kids between six months and 13 years old," Coffey says. "We had to take over the conference rooms and the private party room just to get more programs in." But you don't have to tear down your facility and design a whole new building to get an after-school program up and running. Here are some tips to get you started.

Know your market

How many families are in your local community? Is there even a need for after-school programming? To find out, ask some local schools. Find out what kinds of activities they offer after school hours, and how many children participate. Talk to parents and find out what they do with their children during school breaks and summer vacations. Kidshore offers special camps during holidays, as well as a "parents' night out" for three hours, twice a month. Also, make sure to assess your fitness center's personality. Will a bunch of elementary school kids annoy your regular client base? Or is your building essentially empty between 3 and 5:30 p.m.? You may want to take a member survey or conduct a focus group to see how your facility's atmosphere would change if you added after-school programming.

Build your program

Decide what ages you want to serve and how you will staff the programs. Each state has its own laws regarding instructor-to-child ratios. Coffey has a large full-time staff, but also relies on local instructors who come in to teach classes like gymnastics, karate and yoga. A smaller-scale alternative is to simply have your regular group fitness instructors conduct age-appropriate activities. At Kidshore, age groups are separated. The four- and five-year-olds play in a separate area from the six- to nine-year-olds. Variety is the key to keeping kids interested. In addition to physical activities, Kidshore also offers academic programs like science, languages, art and quiet spaces for older children to do their homework. Parents are invited to watch their kids via a live-feed video channel, which they can access from any piece of cardio equipment. A parent advisory board meets six times a year to talk about what's working, what's not and where they want the program to go in the future. According to Coffey, marketing issues take care of themselves; once the word gets out that there's a place where kids can be active and safe, the news spreads quickly. And no special insurance is necessary to run a childrens' program. What you decide to charge will depend on your community's economic condition. At Kidshore, all the costs are built into the family membership fee. But even if you operate in a lower-income area, you can still offer the program by applying for federal and private grants designed to get kids active.

Getting children to participate

Transportation is a huge issue for every parent of school-age children. The easiest solution is to have school buses drop the children off at your facility, if you are on the bus route. However, you can also decide to offer a fee-based shuttle pickup. It's also fairly easy to help the parents set up a carpool arrangement. Another alternative is to take fitness to the kids. That's what personal trainers Corry Matthews and Dianne Hon of Gold's Gym in Lake Ridge, Va., are doing. They set up the Gold's Gym Jr. Fitness Program at the Lake Ridge Middle School. "We're still piloting the program," says Hon, "but we are seeing about 1,000 kids right now. We do cardio and interval training - something different each month." This program is small, but vitally important to the health of the children in the school system. "Some kids would rather fail PE than deal with the embarrassment of their weight or inability to do the sports," says Matthews. "This is an intervention to create healthy and happy kids, so we don't have to repair unhealthy and unhappy adults." Gold's Gym owners Jeremy and Lori Lowell are footing the bill for Hon and Matthews to spend time at the school, but the fitness center gets something out of it, too. "We're becoming more a part of the community. People have an image of Gold's Gym as a place for hardcore weightlifters, but we're really for everyone," says Matthews. "It's good public relations, and it's good marketing. When the parents get involved, they are more likely to come in and find out what we're about."

Get those bodies moving

So, once you've got the kids together, what activities are they most likely to enjoy? John Hichwa, an award-winning PE teacher, consultant and co-author of Sport for All, stresses that children should be moving at least 50 percent of the class, using developmentally appropriate activities. "Too often kids just sit around during a class," he says. Keep the direction and coaching to a minimum. Also, the younger the child, the smaller the group or teams should be. "Everyone wants to touch the ball. But with teams that are too large, only the athletic ones get the benefit," Hichwa says. "Teams should be limited to around five kids at the elementary school age. That way, everyone gets an equal chance to play." Different ages mean different stages of physical development. Hichwa suggests that you schedule activities accordingly. Three- to five-year-olds. Three- to five-year-olds need non-competitive games that stress locomotive skills - such as walking, hopping, skipping and leaping - and manipulative skills like rolling, throwing and catching a ball. Varying the weight and size of balls makes things more interesting. "Try using oversize balls or a balloon," suggests Hichwa. Spatial relations are another important skill for this age group, including jumping inside and outside and running around an obstacle. "They also need to learn social skills like sharing, and the difference between personal space and general space," Hichwa adds. Six- to eight-year-olds. Six- to eight-year-olds can start combining their locomotive and manipulative skills by playing games that involve interacting with music, moving quickly in different directions or using curved pathways. "Maybe by third grade they can start learning specific sports skills," Hichwa says. Children need to have basic motor functions well established before they can start sinking a basket or dribbling a soccer ball. Nine- to 12- year-olds. Nine- to 12-year-olds should be ready for keep-away games, passing games and moving in conjunction with others. By the time children reach this age, many have already decided they are "no good" at sports. "The 20 percent of athletic kids will be at soccer practice after school, so it's important to address the other 80 percent," Hichwa says. Activities should be fun, and not necessarily a traditional sport. Floor hockey, Frisbee and jumping rope are great alternatives. Competition can be introduced at this age, but continue to keep the teams small so everyone gets to participate equally. Keeping the playing area small also allows each child more action. Teens. Teenagers who aren't playing a team sport, or involved in other after-school activities, like to experiment with different kinds of dance and adventure initiatives like rock climbing or cycling. Outside field trips are also a great way to introduce a child to the joy of moving. You may want to organize a hiking club or orienteering trips. Inside the fitness center, teens become interested in your adult offerings like kickboxing or aquatics classes. Give them a variety of options to choose from to keep them coming back. The most important thing to remember is that by offering programs for children, you are instilling a love of fitness that can last a lifetime. Most kids who already play sports and are physically fit won't need a program like this - they'll be on the basketball and track teams. But the other 80 percent of children who don't make the team, who hate PE class, who think it's better to sit on the couch and watch TV - these are the kids you will need to reach, and you'll need to be proactive to do it.