SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA'S many gymnastics schools reflect a variety of philosophies about the sport. Some emphasize its fitness benefits; others offer the opportunity to participate in team competition. Although few children learn gymnastics to become the next Mary Lou Retton, parents may wish to ask the director of the center they select to explain the center's approach.
Because children of the same age vary widely in their fitness level, parents should look for gyms that evaluate and place kids with children of similar experience. Beginners, obviously, should not be placed with veterans. But even novices should be given a chance to learn about all the major pieces of gymnastics apparatus.
Centers that approach gymnastics as a means of building both fitness and self-esteem provide a gentle introduction to the sport. Among centers with this approach are the Fun & Fit Gymnastics Centers of Burbank and Canyon Country. "In competitive gymnastics, there are always more losers than winners," says Jeff Lulla, president of Fun & Fit. "We find ways of offering praise even if a task is not perfectly performed."
Centers that encourage their most accomplished students to go into competition also offer a full range of recreational classes for children who do not wish to compete and do not pressure students to enter competition. Gymnastics Olympica in Van Nuys maintains competitive teams for boys and girls. A child-scaled training room is available through its Sportskids weight-training program for all kinds of young athletes. Other centers offering competitive opportunities include SCATS, a nonprofit organization with four centers; Foothill Academy of Gymnastics, Pasadena, and USA (United Sports Assn.), Santee.