Small Business

Jyl and Keith Camhi, Great Play: A Fun Way To Teach Kids Motor Skills

Jyl and Keith Camhi had no idea their oldest son, Alec, had delayed motor skills until his preschool recommended physical and occupational therapy. When they saw how much the therapy helped Alec, they wondered why that type of motor skills assistance wasn't available to kids in general. Jyl did some research and found that existing kids' gyms didn't offer anything like it, so she left her successful corporate career to start Great Play, an interactive gym program that incorporates physical therapy techniques into playtime for kids from 6 months to 12 years old.

"For lifestyle reasons, [Jyl] wanted to be in this kids' gym business and, based on her learnings with our own son, saw a way to improve on it," Keith said. "All the stars kind of aligned." Soon after, Keith left the adult fitness business he started to help run Stamford, Conn.-based Great Play.

Great Play teaches younger kids a full range of motor skills and older kids a sports skills programs with activities like hitting a baseball, but in an environment that is geared toward play and fun. For example, the 2,000-square-foot interactive arena has eight computer projectors and sensors on the wall, so when kids are learning to hit the baseball, the projectors show a stadium and scoreboards, the lights come down and the music comes up, and they're introduced one by one as they enter the arena for the "game." "Our whole goal is to turn learning skills into play," Keith said. "When physical therapists come in, they say 'aha, that's what I do in my practice,' but as far as kids are concerned, they're coming in and having a good time."

Now franchising, Great Play has 10 locations open and three more in development. Meanwhile, Jyl has gone from being a top manager at Microsoft, where she built teams and brought high-level networking and database products to the mainstream, to watching 3-year-olds climb through tunnels -- and she couldn't be happier.

How did Alec's preschool determine his motor skills were delayed?

Keith: They see low muscle tone in school if, say, your handwriting is terrible or have balance issues. So as part of that, Alec got access to physical and occupational therapy through school. And that opened our eyes to this world -- to a rich set of tools that so few kids have access to. You notice a real difference. That was a bit of an "aha" -- kids can learn all these motor skills, and it's not just for kids with developmental delays.

How did you decide to leave your respective career and business to start this?

Keith: We were taking our kids to children's gyms, as many parents do, and the existing kids gym industry was based on developmental gymnastics, which is cute and fun but just one piece of childhood development. Meanwhile, our kid was getting special attention in this high-end physical therapy/occupational therapy program. Jyl had the brainstorm that these kids gyms should be incorporating a broader set of activities than just gymnastics, and thought about what would be most valuable for kids, making it fun and engaging. She had actually pursued becoming a franchisee at one of the existing kids gyms and when she asked about adding this to their program, they'd say no, they were just happy with gymnastics. So finally she said there's an important market here that's fundamentally different from what's being delivered now, and we can do a lot better.

Jyl: You know when you read about something you care about, time flies? That's what happened. l Ioved this idea, loved reading about it, loved learning about it, so I knew this was going to be my path, not corporate America. Also, Microsoft was a wonderful place because we got to be very entrepreneurial -- however, you can only control so much. I wanted to be able to work hard at something and see the results of my effort, my vision, my passion, without any other bureaucracy or red tape.

Is the goal of Great Play to build better athletes or to increase kids' confidence?

Jyl: I define a better athlete as anyone who moves, so when we say we're building better athletes, it doesn't mean more competitive athletes or another kid trying for a scholarship -- it's someone who has learned how to incoporate movement into his or her life. If you're active, your self-esteem is better, and that's especially true for children. You watch them on the playground, and you can see when they're confident in what they're doing vs. when they're not. So our key is to arm children with basic skills and then build on those. For example, when they're little, they start with walking, then do a walk-hop, then they learn to skip and they need to know how to skip to do a layup for basketball.

Children have to be confident on the playground that they can hold their own -- otherwise, they don't join in. Too often in sports and activities when they're young, we'll label kids as non athletes, and those children will always be the ones who sit on the side and don't have the confidence to join in. I hate that. Do we ever take kids and label them as a non reader? No, you give them extra time and extra skills until they can read and hold their own. Every child can be active just as every adult can be active. If we can give them the core strength and skills at a young age to make sure they feel confident enough to be active, whether on the playground or in the backyard, they can build on that for the rest of their lives. Just as we want them to feel confident reading aloud in class, we want them to feel confident joining in on the playground.

What has the reaction been?

Jyl: When the kids get picked up, they'll run to their parents and say "Dad, I threw the football, it was spinning, let's practice throwing when we get home." They're proud to share that with their parents.

And now that Alec is older, how have you seen him change?

Jyl: Alec was one of the children who didn't know how to swing a bat perfectly the first time but could process the instructions on how to swing a bat. If Alec hadn't learned this, he probably never would have played Little League, and it was a highlight of his childhood. There were a lot of defining moments for us -- probably one was in a playoff game where he pitched a fantastic game then got a walk off hit. I think it's great for every child to experience that type of high.

What about your lives? How have they changed from the corporate world to working with kids?

Jyl: I'm so happy. In the corporate world, every Monday morning it's kind of hard to get yourself motivated and go back to work, but I walk in now and see a bunch of 2- and 3-year-olds every Monday morning. It's nice to work on a happy topic. Technology was great, it was cool, I loved it, but at this stage in my life, it was more meaningful and impactful to focus on helping children vs. making sure Wall Street's computer systems were working.

We taught a child who had some special needs how to crawl through a tunnel in a class, and his mother started crying when he got through, and we were so touched that we were able to teach him to make it through that tunnel. I got tears and chills, and I thought this is so much more rewarding than working with computer systems.

Keith: We don't have to miss our kids' school plays or sports games or anything. This is the best of all worlds in a lot of ways -- we developed something we feel really good about and built it in a way that is good for our family.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Keith and Jyl Camhi
Company: Great Play
Age: Jill, 48; Keith, 45
Location: Stamford, Conn.
Founded: 2006 (Started franchising in 2010)
Employees: 10 corporate, 12 franchisees
2012 Projected Revenue: $3 million to $4 million systemwide

Jyl and Keith Camhi, Founders of Great Play