Grow Fit Founder shares his passion for health and wellbeing
GrowFit has a mission to empower children with the tools they need to live a happy and healthy life. The Sector Assistant Editor Freya Lucas, spoke with GrowFit Founder Mike Searson about the GrowFit offering, and how his team are supporting not only children, but early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals to bring their fittest selves to work.
Founded in 2011, the GrowFit team work with services across Sydney, providing professional development, early childhood fitness lessons, and online support.
Interviewee: Mike Searson, founder GrowFit
Topics:health and fitness, wellbeing, business development
Freya: Hi Mike, thanks for your time today.Can you tell me a little about the GrowFit journey? I know you got your start on the back of your personal training business, but what drew you to early childhood?
Mike: Before my personal trainer life began, I had loads of experience with children under five, working as a swimming instructor for Forbes Carlile. I saw first-hand obesity levels rising in young children, and the lack of physical activity the children were getting from week-to-week. The weekly swimming lessons were really the only exercise most of the children I worked with were getting. My days in the pool were numbered as the chlorine and I just didn’t get along, and 8 years of bad skin was enough for me.
From there I moved my focus towards personal training, working primarily with adults. With the adults, I knew I was making a difference, but every day was a battle. The adults didn’t really want to train – they knew they had to, they loved the results from working hard, but most of them weren’t passionate about being there.
In 2008 I’d been a personal trainer for many years, and one of my clients invited me to her early learning centre to run a special sports day. I had the best time. I had twenty children running around screaming ‘Being fit is fun’ at the top of their lungs. I went back again and came up with new games, including teaching the children about their biceps and triceps and the most important drink, water. I even wrote a poem:
“Water water drink it down, five cups a day makes me good, no matter if it’s cold or hot, drink it on the spot.”
Not my finest poem, but the next week when I went back, they had all learnt it with the help of their educators, and you better believe they all knew where their biceps and triceps were as well! I worked with the service for about two years, continuing to educate the children about all things health and fitness.
One day, I received a phone call from one of the mums at the centre, she said her son was at a birthday party on the previous weekend. He was standing back, watching all the children stuff their faces with party food, and he walked up to the table, picked up one cupcake and said to her, “Mum, I know this is a sometimes food, and I’ve been a very good boy, so I’m just going to have one.” The mum burst into laughter, saying “Well, he didn’t learn that from me!”
That was the cue for me. I put my resignation in the gym that week with a goal to change the mindset of Australians. I wanted to change the way people feel about being healthy. Being fit is fun, you just need to find what ‘fun’ is for you. Eating healthy is achievable, you just need to know why, and how to do it. I don’t think that we all need to be running on a machine in a room, and I hate the idea of a generation of people sitting on a couch watching their phones. I just think this next generation needs to find a balance.
If GrowFit can empower a whole generation of children with the tools they need to live happy and healthy lives; love of a variety of sports, education about how their body works; improve social skills; open their imagination and increase mindfulness, then I truly believe that we can change the world.
Sounds a little grandiose, but hey, that’s what we’re doing!
Freya: Thanks Mike! Do you have any plans to extend beyond the Sydney market?
Mike: Yes, GrowFit will be expanding well beyond the Sydney market, nationally and internationally, when the time is right and the people are right. We have spent the past 7 years developing our training process to ensure that the qualified GrowFit trainers who facilitate our classes are best equipped to do so.
You can’t just give a script to anyone working in early childhood and say “this is how every class will be everyday, in every early learning centre”. You can’t expect every person who wants to work for you to understand the development process of a child, or how that same child will react in a group situation, and still be able to connect with that child to best encourage their development.
These things need to be taught, and these are the types of things we teach to our trainers. We will expand beyond the Sydney market when we can maintain this high quality standard without having our team within driving distance of Leichhardt. So stay tuned – 2019 is going to be a big year for us.
Freya: Mike, can you tell me about the GrowFit point of difference? What does GrowFit offer that educators can’t do themselves?
Mike: Some educators can do what we do for themselves and that is why we’ve started our professional development classes for educators: to give the tools that we use to the educators, because I know that we can still impact the lives of those children working through those educators.
Our GrowFit trainer-led classes are so much more impactful. In the past I have compared it to the reason why people are more successful with their fitness goals with a personal trainer rather than just a gym membership, but it is so much more than that.
GrowFit trainers are qualified fitness experts, who bring years of experience working in the fitness industry, turning up to each centre for a short period each week, bringing that feeling to every centre we visit. I have heard hundreds of stories from trainers telling me about the excitement of their arrival to the centre, it makes the trainer’s day, it makes their week, it sometimes gets them through that week. For many children, it is the best part of their day and it is the thing they look forward to the most.
Freya: What’s involved in the GrowFit curriculum, and how does it link with the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF)?
Mike: My wife, Alix Searson B.Ed (ECE), is our Early Childhood Specialist. Her role at GrowFit is to help develop a health and well-being program that incorporates an early childhood perspective, ensuring that each session provides the optimal potential for children’s learning, with age-appropriate planned experiences that are educationally designed.
As a part of the GrowFit program, a weekly email is sent to each service ahead of their GrowFit session, outlining the educational program for each class.. We have three different classes we offer, Infant Stars (0-2 years), Mini All Stars (2-3 years) and All Stars (3-5 years), and each week our Mini All Star and All Star classes will cover a different health and wellbeing topic.
We cover a range of topics such as different muscles, healthy eating practices, hygiene, road safety, sun-wise practices, and teamwork.
The weekly email explains the key learning concepts, assessment strategies, ideas for further incorporation within the centre programs, integrated music/language/gross motor/imaginative adventure songs, links to the EYLF and the National Quality Standards (NQS), as well as further questions for educator reflection after the session.
To get the most out of GrowFit, we ask the educators to join their relevant facebook group – we have established GrowFit-specific Facebook groups for educators who work in centres who engage in our weekly visits program. Through the Facebook groups, we interact with educators online, share weekly planning goals, and have professional conversations.
We ask the centre manager or director to forward on the educational program in advance of the session to their team leaders for inclusion in their programs, and to help assist with their weekly planning.
It is also part of Alix’s role to help guide trainer development in early childhood education, to continually improve their class and behaviour management strategies, work with trainers on how to scaffold and extend learning, model appropriate language and interactions and how to promote each child’s agency and positive dispositions towards health and wellbeing learning.
Freya: What else sits under the GrowFit brand?
Our first offering, Da Fit Club is an opportunity to get sports back into home life. When we were developing Da Fit Club, our guiding question was, “How can we get mums and dads excited about playing new sports with their kids?” The answer we found was to send them a bunch of new toys to play with every term, and send them heaps of fun games to play with the new toys.
Every term we send our members a bunch of good quality, great value sporting equipment and send the parents videos of games they can play with their children each week to improve their skills and probably improve their relationship with their child in the process.
Our second offering, Time4Fun, is an after school program for primary school-aged children. This program was developed after I had a call from a friend who I had previously worked with in the early learning sector, who had then moved into outside of school hours care (OSHC) .
She needed a health and fitness program and asked me to help. From there, the Time4Fun program was born. The guiding motto when developing the program was “School’s done, Time4Fun”.
We believe that children have worked enough during the school day and they just need to blow off some steam in the afternoon. Time4Fun gives each child the opportunity to try an array of different sports with their friends, in an environment they are comfortable in: their school. The added bonus with the Time4Fun program is their parents don’t have to drive over to pick them up, take them to a park somewhere, wait around for an hour or so, and then take them home and cook dinner.
Freya: Great, thanks Mike. Can you talk to me more about the professional development services you offer for ECEC services?
Mike: At this stage we have two professional development services that we offer ECEC services, with plans to expand the range in 2019 and beyond, to include services which cover social media for early childhood,water safety, and programming for gross motor skills, to name a few.
The first of our existing offerings is our Get up n’ GrowFit Internal Workshop. In a workplace as unpredictable as an early childhood centre, educators and leadership teams move between standing, twisting, lifting and bending; followed by long periods of sitting stationary while putting a little one to sleep, seated on the floor, or even sitting at a tiny table with the children.
This is where injuries can happen, leading to issues such as long-term back problems, knee problems and migraines. The workshop helps each team member reflect on their current work health and safety policies and procedures, risk management practices, and understand how to strengthen and stretch the correct muscles based on their role. They also learn how to incorporate these new skills into their everyday lesson plans.
The other thing we currently offer is our GrowFit Games Internal Workshop, which is designed for centres who may not be able to have GrowFit in their centre every week but still see the benefit of their educators learning how to implement gross motor development into their lesson planning.
This session is designed to give participants the essential key understandings and knowledge base to plan, set up, deliver instructions, and carry out a minimum of 10 gross motor games. Core concepts and themes are unpacked, with a focus on linking to practical strategies and resources that educators can implement within their everyday programs. The workshop is an opportunity to reflect on and re-discover the importance of gross motor play in children’s lives, leaving educators with a tool box of games; to move, excite and develop the gross motor and functional movement skills of their children specific to the desired age group.
We also have a membership based program in development where educators and centres will have access to an individualised weekly updated program, access to our vast video library of games and stories, and access to our music and live webinars. We’ll be taking applications for interest beta testing centres in the near future.
Freya: Thanks Mike. I’ve read in the past that one of the selling points for GrowFit is around increasing occupancy – can you tell me more about how being involved with GrowFit could increase daily occupancy and contribute to exceeding a centre’s NQS rating?
Mike: Having recently become a parent (to blue-eyed, bubbly baby Frank), I’ve seen quite dramatically a change in my priorities – time spend, financial spend, and aspirations for my family. I know that all parents want the best for their children, and I believe GrowFit can help centres give that “best” to their children.
When an early childhood service offers a GrowFit program to their potential families and current families, they are showing them that they are passionate about the health and development of the children in their centres, because they bring experts in to ensure that each child has the opportunity to learn from our holistic health topics, experiencing a variety of different sports from people who are professionals who know how to teach them.
We find, in many cases,, GrowFit is the point of difference between one centre and another.
We ask the centre managers, owners and directors to consider who is their perfect potential parent? What do they want in a centre for their child? What questions do you need to ask a parent who is taking a tour through your centre in order to make them a perfect potential parent?
We often have early childhood services booking classes on days where their enrolments are lower, such as Mondays and Fridays, because they know that those days will build in occupancy because they offer our program on those days.
We offer assistance and training to centre managers, owners and directors who need help building their social media branding as well as low cost ways to increase their reach to potential parents and we will be launching a workshop specialising in this in 2019.
GrowFit run at least four not-for-profit campaigns each year, working with our partnered centres. During these campaigns, we support a different not for profit (NFP) organisation. We give the centres we work with materials to promote their involvement, as well as guides and ideas to share their involvement with families through social media.
Involvement in projects like these not only builds the presence of the centre in the broader community, but it also positions the centre as a place where social justice is explored, and puts a human face to solving problems. For example, when we were collecting shoes, the children had questions such as “where are the shoes going?”, “why do some people need our shoes?” and “if we didn’t give the shoes away, where would they go?” Exploring questions like these in the centre can help to open up discussions about tricky ethical questions for children.
This involvement builds content for programs and allows centres to meet the NQS.
Every educator who works with us on GrowFit has access to our Growth Hub with programming assistance, links and extension ideas, offering a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips. If we can empower the educators on the ground with the tools they need to do an even better job than they are already doing, then the centre as a whole will lift.
Freya: How does having GrowFit in the centre support with educator health and wellbeing and reductions in sick leave?
Mike: We are very excited about the launch of our Get up n’ GrowFit workshop, we have seen a need and have had centres asking for help in the educator health and wellbeing area for such a long time now.
A healthy workforce in any business has been shown to lower staff absences. Staff are seen to increase motivation, recover faster from illness and are at less risk of long term illness or injury. This improves productivity, performance, staff morale and employee engagement. Businesses see a reduction in accidents, work-related ill health, sick pay costs and the pressure on employees covering for those who are absent.
The aim of this workshop is to first reflect on the current health and safety policies and procedures, risk management and staff mindfulness practices. Secondly, we aim to educate participants on three main areas: staff engagement and connection, injury prevention through exercise and correct techniques, and practical ways to incorporate these into everyday procedures and programming.
Freya: Thanks Mike.Anything further you’d like to add?
Mike: Just a few resources I think your readers might be interested in.
The first is our Help Us Help Out page, this has all the details about our latest and upcoming NFP campaigns. Right now we are collecting children’s toothpaste for the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, we’d love any help we can get. The other is our 100 exercises in 100 weeks page. This is a free video library of games and activities educators can implement in their centre using very minimal equipment. We release a new exercise on Monday each week.
Lastly, this year we began a five-year survey, tracking the activity in New South Wales early learning centres. We would like to find out exactly how much activity children are getting whilst at their centre. Our target is for 100 centres to participate this year and we are getting quite close! If any centre in NSW would like to participate in a short survey we would really appreciate their time!