Fun and games

With a new Gymboree Play & Music studio now open at London City Island, we explore the benefits of sensory activities, getting creative at home, and the power of play for all ages

‘If you never did you should. These things are fun. And fun is good.’

Iconic author Dr Seuss understood better than most the importance of play and the limitless potential of a child’s imagination. But play isn’t just a normal part of childhood; it’s essential for early development — and it’s not necessarily something that we should grow out of altogether.

According to leading psychologist Roy Langmaid, speaking on the topic of play for the Ikea Play Report (2017), ‘The relationships we have with objects are the source of who we are. We all start as children, seeking comfort and then we start to develop our relational world through play. As we grow towards being an adult, we begin to develop power and creativity as more adult expressions, but that doesn’t mean we stop playing!’

“From a very young age, babies naturally use their five senses to explore and make sense of the world”

Use your senses

As a parent or guardian, one of the best things you can do to help your child’s early cognitive development — and more — is to take part in sensory play. From a very young age, babies naturally use their five senses to explore and make sense of the world around them. Through sensory play, these natural instincts are encouraged and developed through simple activities that stimulate the five senses. Although often rudimentary in execution, the benefits of sensory play are immeasurable, aiding everything from communication and bonding to scientific thinking and problem solving, motor skills and even basic mindfulness.

Even for adults, research suggests that we retain information better when our senses are engaged. This is why a particular smell or song can instantly pull us back to a memory from years before. When we’re having a stressful day or just aren’t engaged in work, going for a brisk walk outside can reset our minds and vastly improve our mood. The Japanese encourage a practice called ‘forest bathing’ in which immersing oneself in the sensory experience of the forest (or outdoor space) and connecting sensorially with nature – smelling the earth, touching leaves, tasting fresh air, listening to birdsong – can improve energy, mood, sleep and reduce stress and anxiety.

The effects of Covid-19 and multiple lockdowns over the past 12 months have only heightened how important connectivity and getting back to nature is, especially for young families who have, overnight, had their normal routines upended. Suddenly what’s on our immediate doorstep — in terms of green space and connectivity to friends and family — has become vital for our health and wellbeing.

Community living

The design of London City Island means that it is largely pedestrianised across 12-acres, with close-knit residences and communal areas that encourage neighbourly camaraderie. It has plenty of amenities on the Island — including a supermarket, a rooftop MUGA sports pitch, soft play areas and all-day dining hub and deli Homestead — as well as family-centric events such as film screenings planned this summer.

Every resident becomes part of the City Island Arts Club, which includes access to a premium gym and swimming pool. The health club team is keen to get families active again, and throughout lockdown were keeping spirits up with regular fitness tips, workout videos and ideas on how to stay healthy and happy at home. Fitness manager Chatty Forster, who has a background in drama and arts, is full of creative ideas to keep families motivated and away from their TV screens. With restrictions easing, she and health club manager Miki Boca are planning a summer full of alfresco activities for local families, including picnic and reading outings, a mass game of Kick the Can, and a summer sports day and barbecue with ‘super silly’ traditional games such as three-legged races and an egg and spoon race.

“We’re lucky to have coffee shops, restaurants and a supermarket just around the corner so parents can meet up after classes with their newfound friends”


Gymboree and the magic of music

Michelle Mason, manager of newly opened Gymboree Play & Music at London City Island, describes the area as a ‘vibrant new district in east London’.

‘It really is an island and feels safe, compact and well-connected to Canary Wharf and the rest of London,’ she continues. ‘Our new studio is easily accessed by both residents on the Island or a short walk across the bridge at Canning Town station. We’re lucky to have coffee shops, restaurants and a supermarket just around the corner so parents can meet up after classes with their newfound friends.’

Gymboree is a pioneer of childhood cognitive development through a variety of music and play-based classes designed to stimulate young minds and bodies. It has been a lifesaver for many parents, offering a popular place to meet other families while introducing them to fun and educational classes. Sensory play may seem a modern concept, but Gymboree was established back in the mid-1970s by an entrepreneurial California-based mother who, as Mason explains, ‘Couldn’t find indoor developmental physical play for her children, so opened one herself’.

‘The reason [for these classes] is simple,’ Mason explains. ‘Children learn best when parents enter their world of play and imagination.’

Mason herself was introduced to Gymboree through a friend with a young baby and, impressed by the concept and facilities, opened her first franchised Gymboree studio in 2008 in east London. The new London City Island venue is a welcoming and stimulating environment where both parents and children can learn, have fun and make new friends. After months of keeping a safe distance from loved ones, it is certainly a welcome return to normality.

‘From the moment they walk in the door, parents can see that we’ve created an environment where kids are free to move, play and explore safely,’ says Mason. ‘The play equipment was custom-designed for young children and our classes have been developed to provide a range of age-appropriate challenges and skill-building exercises, allowing each child to participate and learn at his or her own pace.’

Music and song have proven to be essential tools to unlock children’s playful creativity. Even from day one, babies have an innate ability to discriminate rhythmic patterns. This is something that starts in utero (from around 25 weeks), which is why babies find the sound of their mother’s voice so soothing. It also means that the more you talk, sing and communicate with your baby — even if they can’t yet talk back — the better.

‘With an array of musical styles, our classes help children explore the power of rhythm, melody, tonality and beat while nurturing key physical, social and intellectual skills,’ says Mason.

Another local musical resource is the English National Ballet, whose new company headquarters are based at London City Island. The acclaimed company and school went digital last year by launching its ENB at Home service, which included classes for aspiring young dancers through BalletActive and the Ballet on Demand streaming service, where youngsters could watch family-favourite productions such as Swan Lake.

Do it yourself

These kinds of online hubs have been vital for parents who have had to adapt to spending more time indoors with their children, switching to both digital learning and using whatever resources are available in the home. The beauty of sensory play is that an organic and somewhat DIY approach is actively encouraged, and pretty much any household item can be used.

There are plenty of Instagram accounts offering simple, sustainable and purse-friendly ideas for sensory activities (@ralphies_sensory_journey and @an.activity.a.day). These involve everyday items such as cardboard tubes and boxes, kitchen utensils, sweet wrappers, dried pasta and tins. Parents will also find themselves getting creative (and very messy) with food. From around three months, babies start analysing toys and objects orally. This exploration can be encouraged in a safe and fun way by using foodstuffs in sensory activities, for example jelly, crushed up cereal, chia seeds and spaghetti. Once your baby starts on their solid food journey, Homestead has dedicated menus for infant palates and even ‘first dishes’, including avocado and banana purée, and mashed bananas with raisins.

As for a simple, home-based sensory activity, Michelle Mason recommends a good old-fashioned game of peek-a-boo, using a ‘scarf, tea towel, T-shirt or even a favourite teddy bear.’

Place the fabric over your face and softly sing “where oh where is my sweet mummy or daddy?” This encourages your child to pull the fabric off your face for a gentle surprise,’ she says. ‘Then you can introduce turn-taking and place the scarf over their face singing, “where oh where is my sweet baby”. This is great fun for babies and toddlers, it brings in eye contact for bonding, hand-eye coordination, listening and waiting for cues, and usually causes lots of laughter.’

Gymboree Music & Play at London City Island is now open for classes and birthday parties; gymboreeclasses.co.uk. For more information on summer activities at London City Island and the health club, please email fitnessmanager@londoncityisland.net.


Words by Gemma Billington

Illustration by Giacomo Bagnara

“Children learn best when parents enter their world of play and imagination”


Top classes to try at Gymboree

Sensory Play for pre-mobile infants
These specialist classes introduce parents and carers to the world of sensory play, providing them with ‘an entire repertoire of songs and age-appropriate activities to take home’. Classes use ‘song, movement, infant signing, puppets, fibre optics, bubbles, musical instruments and baby-sized apparatus’ as well as group activities and exploration of Gymboree’s ‘Sensory Stations’, which include props to provide ‘endless amusement for babies – and adults too’.

Play & Learn
According to Mason, Play & Learn classes ‘encourage physical, social and emotional development through play and learning with our multi-level programme designed to support your child’s growth at his or her own individual pace. From sensory stimulation to problem-solving games and storytelling, our classes use play-based activities to stretch the body and mind’.

Party time
‘In addition to our programme of classes, Gymboree Play & Music centres provide a great option for hosting birthday parties and other themed events such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Holiday celebrations,’ says Mason. ‘A trained Gymboree teacher leads the activities as the children and parents play, laugh and sing together, creating a memorable celebration.’