GymbaROO, (also known as KindyROO, BabyROO & AussieROO) - the background story.
Margaret Sasse, the Founder and Director of GymbaROO (1929 – 2009) left behind an enormous legacy. Toddler Kindy GymbaROO, KindyROO (Brisbane, Asia and Europe) and AussieROO (USA) is the result of many years of dedication to a cause - improving literacy in children. As a visitor to our web site you may be interested to read a little about how Margaret achieved so much for so many children over the past 35 years.
There has been much in Australian papers in recent years about the appalling level of literacy and numeracy skills in our children. Arguments about 'whose fault it is' fly backward and forward between groups advocating one reading or maths teaching technique over another. This meaningless argument has persisted for many years (there are papers going back to the 1950’s on just this issue!), yet poor literacy skills persist regardless of which argument wins over the day.
Literacy, Learning and Early Development
Do you know that today around 20% of children in Australia measure only just at or below the national minimum standard for literacy1? Basically, there has been no improvement in literacy skills for over 30 years2, and this is with improved learning environments such as smaller class sizes and airconditioned/heated rooms. Why are current approaches failing our children? Well, at GymbaROO we believe we have an important part of the answer - not only to help those failing children, but to identify them BEFORE they start school. It is not the teachers fault. It is not the fault of the parents. It is a neuro-physiological problem that starts in the developing brain of children well before they attend school.
But to understand the GymbaROO program and its close link to improving literacy, it is important that you understand how and why GymbaROO started and what an infant and early childhood movement program has to do with academic learning. It’s a great story about a great Australian.
The GymbaROO story started with a farmer’s wife
This is a story about a farmer’s wife, an ex-nurse, who took up remedial English teaching at the local country Technical School in the late 50’s- early 60’s to support the farm income, as you did in those days. Our intrepid farmer’s wife was given the difficult children to teach – you know, the ones that can’t read, muck up in the classroom and generally make life difficult for themselves and their teachers. After finding a way to help these children learn, our farmer’s wife moved to the city and started a business at the age of 50, and at the age of 80 was leading a wholly Australian owned, International IP-based business focused on ensuring children can read when they get to school.
This amazing woman was called 'a witch' by a leader in children’s health, 'a danger to children' by another leading health professional and 'stupid' by some educational authorities. She had, on the other hand, also received the ANZAC award for services to the community; been a finalist for the Telstra business woman of the year awards, and been acknowledged by one of the most highly recognised world authorities in early childhood development and parenting by Professor Frances Page Glascoe – an international leader in her field of parenting and early education. In fact, Professor Glascoe was so impressed with the program that GymbaROO runs that she has recently come on board as its PATRON (pro bono too).
Yet the battle is on-going. The program is still not recognised as legitimate by educational or health authorities due to lack of ‘empirical, randomised control trialed’ evidence. Not an easy ask for those of us who believe that it is ethically impossible to exclude children from our program, we believe so strongly in the veracity of the GymbaROO program that we cannot ethically have a ‘control group’. Yet, there is much to support our program. Research over the past 50 years points very much to the link between brain development, experience and later scholastic ability. Evidence now abounds to tell us that ‘what happens in the early years matters a lot’3. The experience a child has stimulates the brain to develop the neurological pathways necessary for later social, emotional and academic learning. Children who do not get the right experience cannot lay down these essential learning pathways. It’s as simple (and as complex) as that. While emotional support and caring is important, so too are sensory and motor experiences - exactly what the GymbaROO program provides (in age-appropriate levels).
The pathway to GymbaROO’s program: linking movement to learning …and fighting the nay-sayers the whole way!
Some might ask the question - why did this farmers wife persevere in the face of such persistent opposition? Most of us would have given up years ago and retired at 65. Yet, at 80 years of age she was still publishing! Here is a brief overview of our founder’s pathway to GymbaROO:
Observing that many of her poor readers in the classroom seemed quite clever except for their ‘reading’, and disillusioned with the poor progress she was having with the standard remedial English reading offerings of the time she sought alternatives.
She attended a lecture by a doctor who had studied under Temple Fay (a USA neurosurgeon) who shared with the audience research they had performed on left handed students. These students had been forced to write with their right hand at school (as everyone was in those days), had reading problems, then had accidentally broken their right hand, and therefore used their left hand for writing, and their reading problems disappeared. The two key conclusions reached by the research that feed off that key observation were:
- That unnatural repetitive physiological activity can actually impair how the brains higher functions (reading) develop and operate (that is the natural neurological pathways associated with message transmission develop incorrectly – they still work – but let’s say more like a London street map – not particularly efficient).
- Repeated correct physiological activity can reform these associated pathways along their natural lines so they are much more efficient (a Melbourne street map as compared to London say). Yes - the nervous pathways do rebuild (like they do when you learn the piano) - so it’s not ‘too late’ to do something once a child reaches school!
Our founder researched and applied what she learnt on her remedial English class, involved the parents, and instead of learning to read these teenagers did activities such as flip flops on the floor, swinging from the monkey bars and crawling - and for homework, the same. The outcomes so amazed her (at least two went on and completed university and she maintained contact with one of them - a paediatrician) that she tried to share her experience with the Education Department etc … but found no-one who would listen to her ideas (what would a farmer’s wife, ex nurse know?).
Not willing to give up, she continued her research, and developed specialist knowledge in the area of neuro-physiological development of 0-12 year olds as it relates to reading skills. She moved to Melbourne and founded ANSUA (A New Start For Under Achievers) in Melbourne. This was a non-profit organisation operating in the later 60’s and 70’s that helped parents with children who had reading difficulties. ANSUA’s focus was children whose reading disability could be identified as a neurological developmental problem. These children were typically primary school age children. Hundreds and hundreds of children were assisted during her time there. She also trained and helped people establish centres in other states.
She continued her knowledge acquisition through working with the great names such as Jean Ayres (Sensory Integration Occupational Therapist), Gerry Getman (Developmental Optometrist) and many others whom she came to know personally (see Margaret’s CV).
Dissatisfied with continually treating the problems after they had manifested themselves she decided the most effective mechanism was a preventative approach. Having witnessed many success stories and knowing the case history behind each made her aware that the biggest contributor to poor reading skills was modern life. Modern life interferes with the normal natural neuro-physiological developmental process with which we are all born. Today we are much more protective, there has been a culture that learning to walk early is good, hard floors make it hard to crawl on, children are very confined, and the list goes on. As a result, many children’s natural developmental processes are put at risk, and this can impact their reading and learning capability (a very high order brain thing).
She identified that parents who cared, wanted to know what they needed to do (and why) with their child from birth, to raise them naturally, and maximise their child’s potential (i.e. read and learn).
Much more research led to the development of early childhood neuro-physiological development rationale, based on the research available at the time, and that led to the development of a specific program that educates parents, provides developmental activities for children from 0-7 years and now includes a primary school curriculum, that is fun for parent and child, and most importantly encourages parents to reinforce the program at home.
The first GymbaROO centre opened in Kew in 1982. Today there are approximately 85 centres throughout Australia, 40 in China/Asia, one in USA, and four in Europe. Over 16,000 children attend each week in Australia. It is a franchised business. Each franchisee is vocationally a specialist in our area of expertise, typically they teach the classes themselves, and we expect them to complete our internal professional development course which is the equivalent of a Grad Diploma (we only accept university graduates or equivalent as teachers). Being a franchisee means that organisationally we only attract people who want to help children for life, so franchisees are long serving, acquire huge amounts of knowledge, and become the local community's centre of expertise. Our franchisees and consultants provide an expert base in our primary school program ‘Unlocking Potential’. Schools can tap into and provide regular teacher training, updates and potentially even neuro-physiological assessments in relation to reading readiness. It’s important that you realise that many franchisees could earn more for less work in a professional career like teaching…but they enjoy what they do, are dedicated to the program, parents and children, and find it very fulfilling.
In conjunction with her sister, Dr Mary-Lou Sheil, our founder produced a video (now DVD) series The Importance of Being an Infant, 1, 2, 3, and 4 which is used all over the world in universities and specialist clinics, and by the majority of the Maternal Child & Family Health centres in Australia. Sadly her sister passed away but ‘the farmers wife’ went on to update this series as new information became available.
She also produced two books If Only We’d Known and later Tomorrow’s Children and, at the age of 80, just before her death, released her third Smart Start: how exercise can transform your child’s life.
We think it is important for parents to know the extent of our founder’s dedication to her cause - during her 26 years at the helm of the business she never drew a salary or Directors fee. Every penny she made was tunnelled straight back into the business, so as many children as possible could have an opportunity to attend a centre somewhere in Australia… and now the focus is more and more on developing opportunities for children in countries around the world. She also took on one of the world’s largest franchisors over a trademark dispute in the Australian High Court and part won (this is why we have two names GymbaROO and KindyROO) - but it cost the family farm, so the ‘farmer’s wife’ was no longer - she was now well and truly an early childhood and parenting specialist!
We are grateful for all our Founder Margaret Sasse has achieved. The franchisees and staff of GymbaROO know how hard Margaret worked, against all odds, to secure a way forward for children, and we are sure that the many families that have benefited from her dedication and drive would thank Margaret for her many years of commitment and inspiration.
GymbaROO in schools
GymbaROO has run a very successful research pilot sensory-motor movement program for school aged children entitled No child should fail (after 15 years of hard lobbying by a committed ex-Head Master, Tim Mirabella). The trial was very successful, showing that children who undertook the GymbaROO sensory-motor movement program made statistically significant gains in reading comprehension when compared to children who just engaged in ‘normal PE’ classes. Unfortunately, the study was dismissed as ‘too small’ and rather than support a larger trial to assist the children, it was disregarded entirely by the bureaucracy who agreed to the trial in the first instance. The council who sponsored and supported the first trial was very happy with the results, as were the teachers who noticed a tremendous difference in the children’s ability to attend to task, read, write and behave. We are aware other primary schools are also very interested. So we will try again. The GymbaROO Schools program Unlocking Potential is currently being trialed in a primary school for years Prep – Year 3.
1. . NAP. National Assessment Program report http://www.nap.edu.au/Test_Results/National_reports/index.html
2. Leigh, A. & Ryan, C. (2004). How has school productivity changed in Australia? A report for the Australian Department of Education Science and Training (DEST). Retrieved on 28th March 2009 from: http://econrsss.anu.edu.au/~aleigh/pdf/SchoolProductivity.pdf
3. McCain, M. N., Mustard, J. F., & Shanker, S. (2007). Early Years Study 2: Putting science into action. Toronto Council for Early Childhood Development.
Adapted from an article written for the Margaret Sassé Memorial edition of “First Steps”#65, July 2009, by:
Rob Sasse - Director and General Manager (Marketing and Administration) for GymbaROO.
Dr Jane Williams - Director and General Manager (Research & Education) for GymbaROO.