BATON ROUGE, LA. — In the Bonadona household, Friday nights are for going out - even if you're 4-1/2 or seven years old.
Daniel and older brother Joshua dress for a night of gymnastics and other high-energy activities at Elite Gymnastics in Baton Rouge, La., while Mom and Dad get ready to eat out.
But when the kids have been dropped at the gym for the Kids Night Out program from 6:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Mimi and Nash Bonadona often just go home.
"The kids don't know it, but we'll go home and have two or three hours of peace, just to be together," says Mimi.
Whatever parents decide to do after dropping kids off at programs like Elite Gymnastics, they appreciate having a program that allows them some time to themselves in the evening while their children interact with others in a safe, stimulating environment.
These community-oriented services, which have sprung up in gyms around the country, are particularly valuable to those families who have trouble both finding and paying a premium for a babysitter on a key weekend night. And as communities struggle with issues of underage drinking and teen crime, the programs can be a boon for families of adolescents who want a healthy outlet without heavy-handed supervision.
The Bonadonas can pay at least $25 to hire a baby-sitter and order pizza for their two boys and the sitter, or they can spend $15 per kid to drop them at Elite Gymnastics for a night of pizza dinner, gymnastics, kickball, trampoline games, and other high-energy activities.
"The price is very comparable," says Mr. Bonadona. "But with a sitter, they're usually sitting in the house watching a tape. There's nothing new or exciting they can do at home."
The programs and prices vary according to the gym. Dan Beam, owner of Flame Gymnastics Academy in Fort Smith, Ark., runs an open-gym program every Friday night that charges parents just $5 to leave kids from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
At that price, Mr. Beam does not take in enough through Open Gym to call the program a moneymaker. He emphasizes the close-knit, community-service aspect of his program instead.
"We've had parents ask: 'Can we be 30 minutes late so we can see a movie?' And we'll just hang around an extra 30 minutes," says Beam. "A lot of parents need a dependable place they can let their kids go on Friday night. We have an atmosphere parents really trust."
Elite Gymnastics owner Johnny Moyal describes a similar mission for his program: "I want to provide a service to many in the Baton Rouge community," he says. "I wanted to get some alternative services to normal baby-sitting - to get kids doing something constructive with their time instead of being involved with TV or just sitting around," Mr. Moyal explains.
Moyal's program typically welcomes children from ages 5 to 14, although with gym regulars, he will make exceptions. Participants can use all the Olympic gymnastics training equipment, from the balance beams and the trampoline to a recently installed indoor playground similar to the high-tech structures found at McDonald's. Throughout the evening, the instructors also organize indoor soccer and basketball games and put kids through an obstacle course.
For 10-year-old Lara Balian, the open gym program at Tumblekids USA in Watertown, Mass., offers a chance to have a little fun on Friday night with a sport she works at strenuously during the week.
"She's in a competitive program of very organized gymnastics," says Lara's mother, Lina Balian. "She is always training on a particular piece of equipment - it's very stringent. Open gym lets her be a kid; she can have fun without being told when and how."
The programs provide different benefits for different children. For serious gymnasts like Lara, there is the chance to lighten up a serious pursuit; for the uninitiated, it can offer a low-key introduction to a potentially intimidating sport.
The secret to a positive experience comes down to making sure the program is right for the specific kid, says Stanley Turecki, a child psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and author of "Even Normal Children Have Problems."
"My point of view always comes back to each individual child: For those interested in gymnastics or socializing with other children, it's a very good idea," he says.
The important thing, says Dr. Turecki, is to have options available for parents to leave their kids not only in safe places but in an environment where the child will get something out of the experience.
Teens join in, too
Fun should be the focus, says Marianne Boyer, who runs Riverbend Gymnastics in New Orleans. "There's so much stress on kids these days. Here they can come in on Friday for high-activity, noncompetitive fun and games. It sets them up for an enjoyable weekend with the family."
Pam Monroe, associate professor of family, child, and consumer sciences in Louisiana State University's School of Human Ecology, likes the fact that young teens have a chance to let off steam in a controlled environment, as opposed to finding their own entertainment on Friday night.
"Little kids like parents around, but with adolescents, the trick is to supervise without them knowing," says Dr. Monroe.
"This kind of program gives them something to do that's fun and entertaining; it allows supervision without hovering, which is far better than this business of dropping kids at the mall or movies or leaving them at home alone," she says.
Carolyn Ellender, director of the Parenting Center of Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge, couldn't agree more. She says the ticket is mixing structure, supervision and fun.
Ms. Ellender has found that unsupervised kids from middle school on up may experiment with sex, burglary, or chemical substances. For Ellender, it comes down to this: "A bored child is a child more likely to get into trouble."