Success for Gympanzees!

Gympanzees is the UK's first fully inclusive and accessible leisure centre for those with disabilities. Founded by a paediatric physiotherapist, it uses physio and occupational therapy principles to allow the 84% of children and young people with disabilities who cannot access regular leisure facilities to enjoy exercise, play and friendship.

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Currently in its early stages, it has facilitated three pop up versions of its permanent centre in Bristol, reaching almost 4000 children and young people with disabilities as well as their families. With incredible gross motor skill achievements as well as sensory integration success stories, feedback from these pop ups has been overwhelmingly positive.

Gympanzees started when I was looking to find other exercise opportunities for my clients in the community. When researching I found that shockingly, 84% of children with a disability are unable to access regular leisure facilities and pledged to change that. Gympanzees is the manifestation of this change, aiming to provide exercise, play and friendship to children and young people with disabilities through a long term goal of opening fully inclusive and accessible leisure facilities for all, across the country. 

  • Stephanie Wheen, Paediatric Chartered Physiotherapist

To fund and open these centres we needed to prove the concept,  which is why starting from the summer of 2018 we have run Pop Up versions of Gympanzees in Bristol. These pop ups have seven main rooms – soft play, indoor playground, trampolines, gym, clam sensory room, active sensory room and a music room. With Sensory Integration equipment placed throughout, each room is tailored to ensure every child and young person accessing it is achieving physical exercise or able to stimulate and meet individual sensory needs.

The last time Gympanzees featured in APCP, we had just finished our first ever Pop Up and received phenomenal response. Since then we have facilitated two more pop ups with even greater reach, in Easter and Summer of 2019 both of which have built upon our previous success.

Using a mixture of physiotherapy and occupational therapy principles as well as a visitor focused approach, children and young people can partake in play and activities building on gross and fine motor skills. Experienced staff are placed throughout the centres to interact with our visitors and ensure they are getting the most out of our varied equipment while having the most fun. 

97% of visitors across the pop ups have expressed that they love Gympanzees and would come again and with just under 4000 visits across the 58 days we have had a rapidly increasing interest in Gympanzees. Visitors have travelled up to a 5 hour round trip to visit our pop ups, with some people staying overnight and turning the experience into a holiday.

Some highlights from Gympanzees so far

  • 6-year-old normally can only walk using a frame with her mum facilitating her legs, but after coming to Gympanzees, she managed five steps on her own in her frame.
  • A teenager who usually avoids any exercise at home and school managed 1km on the rower.
  • A 6-year-old boy walked on the treadmill for 12 minutes and then walked on his own for 10m when previously he had only managed a couple of steps
  •  Many children were experiencing being in a weight-bearing, standing position, thanks to machines such as the Innowalks.
  • A 15-year-old boy with quadriplegic CP has since joined his local gym as he enjoyed it so much and gained the confidence to go.
  • One boy, who has only ever lasted 20 minutes on a day out, stayed and played for 3 hours at the Pop Up
  • One boy with sensory issues opened one of his hands and played in the sand for the first time through interactive play with a member of staff
  • Many examples of motor skills improving, balance and coordination improvements and children sweating or exercising for the first time.
  • And many examples of children with autism or sensory processing problems being happier, calmer, more confident and being actively sociable with strangers and their family.
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The growth of interest in the pop ups has allowed us to expand them. We now hold studio-style spaces for disability yoga, dance and team sports classes as well as opening to those outside of our original 0-25 age range. The 2019 Summer Pop Up saw the introduction of adult sessions. One group booking of adults with PMLD finished their session and immediately booked another session as they were so impressed. Adult sessions will be continued in future pop ups alongside trial sessions open to the general public, allowing children and young people with disabilities to play alongside their non-disabled peers.  

With the growing momentum of Gympanzees, we have been lucky enough to receive recognition both local and international. With fundraising efforts from many supporters of Gympanzees, visits from local MPs and the Mayor of Bristol, Gympanzees is securing its status as a recognised Bristol enterprise. We won the GBEA Entrepreneur for good award in 2018, been finalists for many health and community awards and most recently were awarded the World CP award for Quality of Life.

Having proved our concept, we are now working with fundraising consultants to secure funding for our first permanent centre in Bristol, which will have an estimated 7300 service users a month. Alongside this, we are working with the University of the West of England to explore a social franchising model, ultimately having centres, led by therapists, across the country. We are also working continuously to become more accessible, including looking to extend our gym to accommodate adults with neurological conditions.  While all this is going ahead, we will continue to run pop ups in the Easter and Summer holidays in Bristol to ensure that the need for affordable, fun, physical and sensory activity is being met. 

To follow along our journey, please follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @GympanzeesUK or sign up to our newsletter on www.gympanzees.org

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