One step at a time

Someday, if all goes as planned, Matthew Dolliver will be taking his cues from a high school coach. He will be standing on a basketball court or soccer field or baseball diamond, getting ready for the next game, fit and strong and physically confident. For now, though, the orders are delivered with a childhood song and a gentle nudge.

You put your right hand in ...

"Everyone put their right hand in!" a thin, female instructor enthuses to the seven preschoolers lined up before her on a blue carpet at a Seattle-area gymnastics center.

You put your right hand out ...

"Now right hand out!" she affirms. Still, several kids thrust their left hand. Others hop around like jumping beans.

You put your right hand in ...

"Matthew, right hand in!" she says, trying to make eye contact.

And you shake it all about ...

"Now let's do the hokey pokey! Let's go in a circle!"

... That's what it's all about.

When finished, there are laughs and smiles everywhere. But don't be fooled. Parents aren't paying $50 per session just so their kids can have fun. This hokey pokey is all about developing the body awareness and basic physical tools to someday participate in organized sports.

Though not consisting of games, classes like this are the first layer of organized sports. Their characteristics are structure, investment and adults in charge. These programs set the stage for everything else to come in today's ramped-up youth sports landscape -- from early competition to travel ball to paid coaches.

With many youth sports programs now beginning play at age 4, and some as early as 3, that transition could come next year for Matthew. Or next week. No matter when it arrives, his mother, Barb, wants her shy, 3-year-old son to feel as if he is enough of an athlete to compete with other kids.

Barb Dolliver is far from alone in using a structured environment to introduce her son to sports. Across the country, kids under the age of 5 now make up 32 percent of the students at gymnastics clubs, roughly twice what it was a decade ago, according to a USA Gymnastics official. And the vast majority of those 820,000 kids are not signed up with visions of Carly Patterson or Paul Hamm dancing in parents' minds.

"Matt doesn't get enough play time with kids his own age," Dolliver says. "I'm hoping he can use the balance and other things he learns here to move on to other sports."

A legal secretary until she became a full-time mom, Dolliver stands with the other mothers on a second-floor viewing area at Gymnastics East, the sprawling Bellevue, Wash., facility where Matthew takes classes. To her left is a trampoline and running surface where Matthew refines his gross motor movement. In front of her are parallel bars where instructors help him work on his strength. Behind her is a foam-padded obstacle course that challenges his coordination and fine motor skills.

As a girl growing up in West Seattle, a working-class area on a hilly peninsula just across the bay from downtown, Dolliver was introduced to sports like most kids of her generation, informally, in backyards all over the neighborhood.

"I really had fun as a kid, not so much doing [team] gymnastics but having fun outdoors," she says. "We would find the biggest lawns and roll down them, or do cartwheels."

It's different for Matthew, who grows up in a large home on a small lot in a dense subdivision 20 minutes to the east of Seattle. It's a destination community for professionals, with interesting rooflines, manicured gardens and a Starbucks at the bottom of the hill. But Matthew cannot do the carrot rolls because the backyard is a sliver of green grass, and a driveway swallows much of the front lawn.

Besides, Dolliver isn't comfortable letting him play alone out front, given how often she hears about sexual predators and registered pedophiles. Local TV news loves to report on where they're living -- fear always drives ratings -- and though she hasn't heard of any creeps within a couple miles of the neighborhood, her maternal instinct says, don't take chances.

"You just get nervous about it," she says.

Matthew does not complain. Inside his home, he finds plenty of adventure -- at the end of his right index finger. He'll log on to Disney and with a click of a mouse make JoJo the clown jump rope. Or he'll pop in his Bob The Builder CD and make something cool with Bob's very own hands. Dolliver tries to limit Matthew to 30 minutes a day on the computer, but he always wants more.

"I worry about him not developing the same way we did when we were kids," says Dolliver, who ran track and competed in gymnastics as a teenager. "We didn't have computers. Now it's like, what would we do without one?"

All that sitting in a chair can change a kid's body. A decade ago, the Gymnastics East instructors began to notice that many of the latest preschoolers could not touch their toes without bending their knees. Their hamstrings weren't loose enough. So improving flexibility is now a primary, if hardly exclusive, goal in the lesson plan.

"Watch the feet," says Roberta Diles, co-owner of Gymnastics East. A small, Australian woman, Diles is walking toward the trampoline as several preschoolers bounce around. A blond, curly-haired boy to Matthew's left is jumping flat-footed -- another trait of modern kids. A generation ago, kids learned to use the balls of their feet by running around in bare feet. Now, they rarely go outside without shoes, lest they step in glass.

Parents' recognition that preschoolers need to be more active has been a boon for Gymnastics East, the largest facility in the state of Washington, with 2,200 students of all ages. Demand was so great for classes this fall that on the first day of signups, a line started forming at 6:30 a.m. By the time the gym opened at 9, there were 200 people, mostly mothers and nannies, in the queue. Neighboring business owners got frustrated as loading trucks were blocked from the parking lot. Tensions grew as people tried to sign up their whole carpools, only to be sent back into the hot August sun to register each kid individually. A week later, clerks were still trying to file the first batch of 800 registrations, many for kids under 5.

The upshot is Matthew won't be taking classes in Bellevue this fall. They were all full. So instead, Dolliver will drive him 15 minutes east to the club's satellite gym in Preston, in the Cascade Mountains. She's OK with it. She's just glad he likes gymnastics.

Now if Matthew can only figure out which mainstream sport he might like. Dolliver recently placed him in a local rec program that exposes kids to three weeks each of soccer, basketball and tee-ball. But he's so new to these sports, they seem to be one. Back at his house in the family living room, when asked his favorite game, he curls up on mom's lap and says quietly, "Sports Sampler."

Then he hops down and asks Mom if he can play a little more computer.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com.