FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- Marylane Wigren starts many of her days the same way - playing ball, doing jumping jacks and stretching.

But those activities are much more fun when a handful of happy tykes join in.

Wigren runs the Belvoir Gym Jam program, which teaches children ages 3 to 5 the basics of various sports, such as soccer, basketball bowling and even Frisbee. There's even a focus on nutrition and the importance of healthy snacks.

While similar to the Child and Youth Services Smart Start program, which also introduces this age group to athletics, Gym Jam takes place during the day without the parents' attendance. It also covers a broad base of sports in its six weeks, rather than one sport in the same span with Smart Start.

Gym Jam incorporates plenty of movement. "We work on gross motor skills and focus on activities like throwing, catching and balance," Wigren said.

On this day, Wigren instructed the small group of children at the North Post Child Development Center to sit in a circle with their legs stretched in front of them, describing the position as a pike.

"Can you say 'pike''" she asked to a cheerful chorus of repetition.

She then passed a ball around the circle and asked for each child's name and a description of his or her favorite activity to play.

The day then evolved into aerobics and tossing tee balls with music and song, all in a fun, non-competitive environment.

Getting children involved in physical activity early is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, Wigren said.

"The importance of programs like this is to instill the love of exercise in children at a young age," she said, adding that these efforts help stave off problems like childhood obesity. "It helps children remember in the future this is something that's supposed to be fun, not something that they're forced to do."

Teamwork is also a huge part of the Gym Jam experience. One child may throw a ball to another, Wigren said, but that doesn't necessarily mean either of them wants the other to play together.
"I try to stress the value in playing in a group and team environment, and learn about the importance of partnership relationships."

With a degree in early childhood education and 10 years working with a children's dance and fitness studio, Wigren is well-equipped to work with children's developing minds and physicality. "I want them to explore their bodies, what they can do and how they work. I want them to learn to participate in different activities and take risks to do things they normally wouldn't.

"I want to teach them that with sports, you can't just hop into a sport without putting in the effort," Wigren continued. "There's going to be work involved, but as long as you practice, you can do it."

With Wigren's help, these pint-sized protAfAgAfAs are well on their way.