Tumble Tots is a physical development programme for children in the early years (0-5 years). It’s basically a preschool child friendly gymnastics session where children learn to use equipment, do music and movements and develop skills such as hand-eye coordination, arm strength and gross motor control. It’s an important area of development at physical skills used for climbing, swinging, balancing, grabbing, throwing etc encouraging the muscles and movements needed for fine manipulation which helps with everything from getting dressed independently to writing. By focusing on the large skills first, children will then be able to fine tune the smaller movements.
We were late to the Tumble Tots scheme. We didn’t find them until J (aged 4) was 3 years old when I googled ‘local gymnastic group’ following an awful experience a gymnastics company near to us. I won’t go into detail but basically, they were not understanding of J’s autistic needs and not willing to make reasonable adjustments for him, so we were encouraged to leave (which we did gladly). This made me incredible anxious about finding a new group for J.
I emailed our local group and they were instantly open to discussing J’s areas of support. They asked a lot of questions about his needs and were very encouraging. So, we went along for a trial session. From the moment we first stepped foot inside Tumble Tots J was very welcome. Over time we all learnt where J’s tolerances were and built on this to encourage him to try new things and develop his skills. I thought I’d share with you all what has worked for us, and what a Tumble Tots session can offer your child. Although the group is open from 6 months olds upwards, I can only comment about the 3-5-year-old session. J’s younger brother F will start the baby group in October, so I’ll make sure to share how it goes.
Entering Tumble Tots
When you get to the group there is a section with chairs for the adults (grown ups sit and watch whilst the amazing instructors supervise and support the children). J takes his shoes and socks off and has chance to run around and get accustomed to the hall – it’s echo, the equipment (which changes every other week), the people. We always get a lovely hello, and J is now so comfortable with all the instructors that they all get a hug. As you pay online (we pay half termly) you don’t have to worry about having cash on you or lining up to pay.
The session starts with a quick group time. They chat about the week, do a sort of ‘show and tell’ if anyone has brought anything in and count how many children are there (it’s great for other areas of learning such as maths, language and listening skills). For J, group time can be a challenge…. waiting, listening to others, mind blindness all affects this so if he needs to jump, spin or come back to me then they let him. Over time they have encouraged him to stay longer and share his news.
Next they have some music and movements to get the bodies warmed up. They have one song from the Tumble Tots CD (which you get in your membership pack) and do actions to the lyrics. When J first started, he had zero interest in music, let alone dancing. He would just walk around in a circle or run up and down the hall. Again, after a while J started to join in. It started when one of the songs had a spinning action. J is a ‘vestibular seeker’ so he gets pleasure out of spinning and being dizzy. This was the first time he joined in. After this he slowly, slowly did a little more and now most weeks he stays with the group the whole time…he won’t always join in, but he stays in the area which is a win.
There are then three ‘stations. Each station has a set of obstacles to navigate through and the group split up, so they work in smaller teams. These always have a ‘theme’ each week such as transport, baking, animal adventures. The theme and obstacles change every other week. This gives children opportunity to repeat skills they’ve learnt, the next week. The stations offer a range of skills such as ‘swinging’, balancing, climbing, navigating obstacles, crawling, posting etc. It covers a lot of the learning that is in the Early Years Foundation stage framework used in educational settings, so it is a great group to either compliment what your child is learning with their early years provider or to support those doing home learning.
The stations can be challenging for J. He struggles with some of the ‘social rules’ such as turn taking, being in a line with other children, listening and doing at the same time etc.
The instructors set up ‘wait spots’ for J so he has a visual to show him when he has to stop and wait for an adult to help him on the equipment (usually the high up ones or ones with increased risk). They also use his ‘wait card’ to help him to stop when the time on the station is finished and move on, then use it to remind him to wait at the new station to listen to the instructions. It’s the use of these visuals that encourage J to remain part of the group. It means he doesn’t have to focus on trying to listen whilst distracted by what he sees around him, the background noises, if someone is touching him, if its hot/cold, the texture of the floor on his feet etc. The visual gives him a clear instruction for what is expected of him in that moment.
Each station has at least one instructor to support the children. They helped guide them, praise them and keep them safe. The way they speak to the child is friendly and suitable for their age. They are firm when they need to be but fairly so. When they need to correct J’s behaviour, they speak directly too him. The leader of the group will often come over and make sure J has a 1:1 chat if needed so the other instructor can focus on the other children.
I remember once they had a spaceship themed obstacle. Basically, you had to climb in the box and back out the box (‘the cockpit’). J loves space themes and spaceships so he climbed in…and stayed in. They didn’t tell him off, they didn’t force him out…they realised that as Star Wars is his obsession that he got himself almost stuck in a loop. They encouraged J to go try some of the other obstacles and eventually he did (I did go and help to distract his attention and went around the rest of the obstacle course with him). The next week they changed the box, so it was laying down and they had to crawl through instead. This small tweak was enough to stop him getting stuck in the cycle of play again.
There is always one floor-based activity. This can range from using the stick to control a balloon, balancing beanbags on heads, throwing into a hoop etc. It’s the skill of using equipment and manipulating/controlling them. It really focuses a lot of spatial awareness and proprioception (knowing where your body parts are in relation to others – similar to spatial awareness). Again, this is an area J can struggle in as it is a group-based activity so it can be distracting for him. If someone does something a bit silly, then he will copy…whether he’s meant to or not. This is the time J often goes back to running up the hall or spinning in circles due the overload. The instructor let him have this ‘time out’ and give him opportunity to re-join.
(J’s first ever sticker)
At the end the group gets back together, and they do one more song to end the session. They then get a sticker…J will do anything for a sticker (he does well with visual rewards), so he is usually first to the front of the queue. The stickers are just a lovely way to say well done for all the children’s hard work. There are special stickers for things like birthdays and you even get a ‘graduation certificate’ whenever you move up a class or when you leave because you’re too old. I love the fact the routine is always the same every session. It helps J to feel confident as he knows what is happening, what will happen next and when it’s going to end.
Whether your child has additional needs or not, I highly recommend Tumble Tots as a fun and friendly group to try out. If you’re not sure if its suitable for your child just give the leader a ring and they’ll chat through it all with you. I wish I had found this amazing group a lot earlier, but I have to say that since attending J’s physical skills have shot up. He can now use the equipment at the playground more independently and he caught up on a lot of skills he lacked such as jumping and rolling. J has always been made to feel loved and wanted in the group. I will always be grateful to Tumble Tots for helping open J’s world and giving him vital skills that will help him in ‘big school’ in September.
Have you ever tried Tumble Tots? Were you a Tumble Tot yourself? I’d love to know your thoughts on dealing with groups when your child is autistic. Get in touch in the comments or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked to write this review and have not received anything for writing this. I just wanted to share what has worked for us and as always I am honest about our experiences.