The total workout for 2-year-old tykes at 14th St. Y

By Judith Stiles

The name of the game for 2-year-olds is “free play,” better known as “Tumbling Tykes” at the Sol Goldman Y on 14th St. near First Ave., in which toddlers run amok for the first five minutes, and then settle down to a more organized form of exercise. This type of skill-building will be useful in just a few short years if they get involved in sports or dance. Jumping, twirling, balancing, stretching and running mini-races keeps these tots busy under the marvelous leadership of performer Meredith Wright, who sings from her cornucopia of jazzy tunes as the tots motor around nonstop.

A former theater and early-childhood education major at Barnard College, Wright creates a unique blend of music and movement to introduce the children to activities that focus on developing motor skills. Most of the songs she uses are original compositions, lively melodies inspired by the hustle and bustle of life in the city. She sings about the subway being the best carnival ride, and the sweet smells of laundry tumbling and rumbling in giant clothes dryers in the laundromat.

Wright says with a broad smile, “It is good to let them play and if you are a teacher, you have to allow yourself to play, too.” Wright often wriggles herself down to eye level with the tots in the class, as she immerses herself in whatever they are doing.

As the first five minutes of free play winds down, Wright cheerfully belts out, “O.K., my little runaways, two minutes and we start!” All shoes come off, as toddlers in all shapes and sizes gravitate toward the statuesque Wright. Her sunny disposition is a bright light on a bleak cold February afternoon. Although several are still waddling around in diaper-thick outfits, big personalities are already emerging as the leaders of the class are bold and boisterous, while others are shy and insist the caregivers hold their hands throughout. Unlike adults, children at this age are in constant motion, so the challenge for Wright is to lure them into participating with the group.

“Wiggle hello to Emma, and then stomp your feet!” catches everyone’s attention. Similar, and yet different, from a class of senior citizens, toddlers’ commanding their bodies to stomp their feet is not all that simple. For the toddlers, it is usually a spontaneous movement linked to frustration, while with seniors, stomping has long disappeared from their repertoire as socially unacceptable. For both age groups it is a tension release and a great way to start out a class.

Next, Wright has everyone sitting in a circle on the floor with legs outstretched doing the familiar toe touching. However, with the tots, she livens up the exercise by giving them brightly colored blue beads that she calls “seeds” that they must plant in the imaginary garden by their feet.

This is followed by free-flowing stretching where they “reach for the peanut butter in the sky, then reach for the jelly!” Then with arms flying, she leads them in a vigorous smearing of the peanut butter and jelly all over the floor and all over their bodies. This is a big hit with the tots because they know smearing finger paint on paper is socially acceptable, while smearing jelly on the floor is not. There are squeals of delight with the smearing here there and everywhere, all the while their bodies are loosened up in a way similar to an aerobics workout for adults.

There is no water break as the tots move on to a challenging balancing routine, where they jump down from brightly colored steps onto a wooden beam that they walk across. This balance beam is a foot off the floor with padded mats underneath. Some hold Meredith’s hand and a few dare to do the walk without help.

Next Wright leads them in a mini-race while the parents and caregivers cheer them on. Julian, demonstrating a strong streak of independence, has his own method for racing, which is scooting across the floor in the sitting position. He gleefully goes from the starting line to the finish line as fast as a crab to the amazement of the onlookers. The boys especially seem to relish the race, with young Ian calling out, “I won!” as he crosses the finish line.

The hourlong class winds down with fun exercises and games using a colorful parachute. Every child seems fully engaged in Wright’s delightful program, which in the end, gives every muscle a workout, including the fingers and toes.

At the end of class a few tears are shed because the magical world of Meredith Wright has come to an end.