HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Shaun Gayle is known as a tough guy when he plays defensive back for the Chicago Bears, but he has a softer side when it comes to children, especially those at his new preschool.
Gayle, 26 and unmarried, runs a school for 2- to 5-year-old in this affluent suburb, helping children learn through physical fitness.
"Their minds are like sponges, they absorb so much," he said as he watched four youngsters climbing, jumping, balancing, singing, listening and riding in his Fit by Five preschool.
It is the fifth in a chain begun in 1969 in Rochester, N.Y., by Betty Perkins-Carpenter, a former international diving coach who believes children learn best when they are active.
The Active Approach
And at Gayle's school, youngsters do stay active. Sean Jefferson, 4, looked tentative about learning as he sat, cross-legged, on a square scooter atop an inclined board. The stabilizing grasp of teacher Renee Mulloy didn't seem to help his confidence.
When she let go, Sean rolled down the incline and closed his eyes for an instant as the scooter straightened out on the rubber floor and headed for a pile of mats. The gentle collision with the padding caused Sean to fall over, but he giggled as he went and was ready to try again.
The children also walk a balance beam, climb up one side of a ladder, jump off onto mats, shoot rubber-tipped arrows at a target and make their way across a suspended horizontal ladder.
Noncompetitive activities such as the ride down the incline are designed to build self-confidence, help children interact with others and develop their motor coordination.
Children generally come for three hours once or twice a week, at a cost of $210 for one session a week and $378 for two sessions a week, over a 12-week period.
Gayle, who holds an education degree from Ohio State, said his experience as a member of the Bears and in speaking at schools shows self-confidence can go a long way toward solving problems like drug abuse among young people.
"I was looking through different publications about programs, and I came across Betty," he said. "I just felt she had a different outlook on things."
A trip a year ago to Rochester by Gayle and Les Feinglass, his financial adviser and partner in the preschool, got the program under way. The school, which opened last month, has 22 students.
"Shaun's just terrific," Perkins-Carpenter said in a telephone interview. "He's a real role model for kids."
Another Fit by Five school is in Irondequoit, N.Y., and two are in the Baltimore area.
Gayle, who has missed most of this season because of a broken bone in his neck, hopes to return before the season ends.
Meantime, he's working out and hoping that his preschool, which has enrolled the children of Bears teammates Mike Singletary and Dave Duerson, grows.