Winning Women – Liz Senior: Dance of joy

2014-02-17 08:00

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Liz Senior, the founder of the Clamber Club, develops a child’s brain and body in stimulating and fun ways, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

At first glance, children at the Clamber Club look as if they’re having the time of their lives as they jump in and out of rubber tubes, climb up and down blocks or crawl through a tunnel. Make no mistake, they are having fun, albeit on a much deeper level. Their exercises and dancing – even toddlers are doing a wriggle – are cleverly stimulating their physical, ­perceptual, cognitive, psychological and social faculties.

“We focus on movement as this is where all learning begins,” says Liz Senior, the creator and founder of the Clamber Club.

“From the early sensations of body movement, your child develops a motor base essential for higher levels of learning,” explains Senior, who is also an occupational therapist (OT) and has worked here and abroad.

She talks animatedly about the increasingly sedentary lifestyle that’s so much a part of our existence today. Most South Africans over the age of 40 grew up climbing trees, kicking balls on dusty streets or playing hide-and-seek in the park.

They were unconstrained compared with today’s kids – raised in an increasingly nanny-like society, born into an environment of fear fuelled by security issues, child rape and human trafficking. Now parents keep kids safe at home – whether it be an apartment, a shack or a mansion.

When Senior began creating the Clamber Club and sourcing equipment for it, primarily for children at a Joburg school who were in need of specialised exercises, she had no idea it would grow into the large business it is today.

She launched it in 1989 with a R20?000 loan from her brother-in-law. Now there are 52 franchises across South Africa and two years ago, Senior opened one in Sydney, Australia.

Her head office is still located at her home in Dunkeld, northern Joburg, and some classes are held there. Senior, who never sits still for long, whisks me away from one set of activities to another.

She is totally grounded in her work – down on her knees with little kids one minute, reaching up to extract others from a slide the next.

Senior had the kind of childhood she wishes all kids could have. She grew up in Irene, outside Pretoria, where she went camping near the river, ­running and jumping in green meadows, and cycling freely along dust roads.

“My mother, Monica Burnett, was passionate about helping mentally handicapped women and created stimulating physical activities for them,” she says.

Inspired by her mother’s work, she graduated as an OT from the University of Pretoria in 1985 and spent the next few years paying off her student loan.

That saw her working with head and spinal injury patients, in burn units and in hand therapy.

A stint in London saw her working as an OT in geriatric units. She loved everything she did and “couldn’t decide which area to focus on”.

It was a light bulb moment when she took her little nephew to a UK Tumble Tots class and realised the impact of physical activity on children’s ­development.

She returned to South Africa to work with an OT, knowing where her future lay as she observed the problems some children had with spatial awareness, a lack of balance, poor muscle tone and clumsy coordination.

“You need to have a lot of movement in order to integrate your senses well. Furthermore, it helps with bone density, lung capacity and oxygenating your brain.”

She explains that in order to sit upright, our bodies require a number of muscles and nerves to work in concert, something most of us simply take for granted – until our children struggle.

She married her theoretical knowledge with physical movement and developed programmes that would be stimulating, fun and developmental.

“I bought a van to transport my Clamber Club equipment to schools and parties,” she says.

As word of Clamber Club spread, mothers – who are encouraged to get involved in their little one’s activities at Clamber Club – began to ask what they could do on their own to stimulate their children.

The upshot was Senior’s book, Growing Up with a Smile (now out of print, but she plans to republish it).

She now has five different franchise offerings for potential franchisees to choose from, which cater for children between the ages of two months and nine years. “It’s the diversity of Clamber Club which is its unique selling point,” she stresses.

Jog the Frog is the soft-toy company mascot and although he’s sometimes clumsy, he loves to exercise. Jog is so loved, kids take him to bed and to hospital.

Senior has developed an extensive product range that includes music CDs and DVDs, jog toys, books and puzzles. They sell at Baby City stores and selected retail outlets, and she plans to extend her product range and outlets for it.

Beyond that, her goal is to move into the African market.

The occupational therapist who set out to help develop children to their full potential has created an empire that thrives on fun and joy.

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