Child’s Play

Situated between Buddy’s BBQ and Grill and the Early Times quilting shop in a beige stucco strip mall, is a potential gold mine envisioned by W. Berry Fowler. Just before 9 AM on a fall Saturday morning, Ford minivans and faux-wood-paneled station wagons can be seen pulling into the ample parking spaces in front of the Little Gym International. This local franchise is part of a company that was established in Bellevue, Washington in 1976 and had only four locations at the time. Since Fowler’s involvement in 1992, the company has expanded into a national network with 100 franchises. This growth isn’t surprising given Fowler’s previous success.

In 1979, Fowler, who had transitioned from a teacher to an entrepreneur, opened the first Sylvan Reading Achievement Center with an initial investment of $14,500. As the center grew and evolved into the Sylvan Learning Corporation with over 300 tutoring centers focused on reading and mathematics, Fowler sold the company in 1985 for a substantial sum of $5.2 million.

The underlying philosophy of both companies is essentially the same: provide children with a noncompetitive environment where they can take risks, receive ample positive reinforcement, and demonstrate tangible results. Parents who have the means are willing to pay for such an educational experience for their children. Brenda Dierolf is one such parent. Her two daughters, aged 7 and 22 months, attend classes at the Little Gym. Dierolf pays $76 per month for two weekly classes and a $30 annual family fee. In addition to the Little Gym, Denise also participates in Brownie meetings and takes Yamaha piano lessons after school. Dierolf admits that it’s a bit unfortunate to have to pay for activities outside the home in order to spend quality time with her children, but she appreciates the unique experiences offered by the Little Gym.

The children, including Denise and around eight others aged 6 to 12, gather on mats arranged in strips of vibrant yellow, red, blue, and green. After a warm-up session set to music that parents can purchase on tape for $6.95 each from the gym’s "pro shop," two instructors guide the children through an obstacle course. The course includes activities such as cartwheeling on a padded mat, practicing handstands against a wall adorned with childlike illustrations, jumping in and out of a doughnut-shaped mat, tumbling down a ramp, and performing a handstand dismount from a vault. One slightly hesitant boy, dressed in a turtleneck, initially refrains from attempting a handstand. However, with quiet encouragement from an instructor, he eventually joins the group and makes his first, albeit awkward, attempt. Cosmo Mirra, the boy’s father, notes that his son is more daring on the playground after attending the gym for around two and a half months. While acknowledging his son’s limited physical abilities, Mirra sees the potential for skill development and, most importantly, his son enjoying himself. Mirra explains that the soccer league his son participated in the previous year was overly intense, resulting in his son spending a lot of time on the sidelines. In contrast, the Little Gym allows children to progress at their own pace while still providing them with challenges. Lead instructor Lisa Davis, a former gymnast, emphasizes that the gym’s primary goal is not to produce future Olympic champions.

Sharon Krick Cole opened her Charlottesville Little Gym in late August. As a registered nurse and mother of three, she was drawn to the company’s focus on creating a low-stress, noncompetitive environment that fosters both physical and social development. The concept of providing equal attention and support to all children, regardless of their proficiency level, appealed to her. Cole’s gym attracts approximately 300 children aged 4 months to 12 years per week. Initially, Cole anticipated starting with 80 children and expanding to around 250 in the first six months. Surprisingly, within the first month, she already had 264 children enrolled. On a typical Saturday afternoon, Cole hosts three consecutive birthday parties, with prices starting at $125 each, in the gym’s party room. On Saturday nights, the gym becomes busy with children whose parents take advantage of the "parent survival night" from 6:30 PM to 10:30 PM. This evening program serves as a stimulating babysitting service, complete with storytelling and rides on a cable pulley strung across the gym.

The success of the Charlottesville franchise appears promising for Fowler’s most recent business endeavor. However, Fowler’s journey has not always been smooth sailing. Once referred to as the "Colonel Sanders of teaching," Fowler faced difficulties when he initially started the Sylvan tutoring franchises.

According to the 47-year-old entrepreneur, he only truly mastered reading at the age of 24, during his fourth attempt at college. Reflecting on his past, Fowler admits that his first college experience was not successful, with a grade-point average of 1.2. He explains, "I would become frustrated and quit, attempting to pursue other endeavors for a semester or so. Not completing college was a burden that I carried with me, as I was raised with the expectation of attending university."

The embarrassment he felt as a child, being laughed at by classmates when asked to read aloud in class, had a lasting impact on him. This experience played a significant role in his decision to become a teacher. Seeking a solution, Fowler enrolled in a speed-reading class at Chapman College in Orange, California. However, his teacher recognized that Fowler needed to strengthen his fundamental reading skills rather than focusing solely on speed. Together, they worked on these essential skills.

"It was as if a light switched on for me. It completely changed my perspective on academics and education," Fowler reveals. "I had always achieved success in the real world, but struggled academically. This experience confirmed that I wasn’t unintelligent; I simply had a specific problem." This pivotal moment motivated Fowler to complete his education, earning an education degree from Chapman College. As a junior high geography and art teacher in Anaheim, California for six years, Fowler often drew upon his own struggles with reading.

In his art class, Fowler assigned students the task of creating an eight-page comic book with a fully developed storyline. Naturally, this project required a substantial amount of writing and reading. "Many students possessed incredible potential, but they felt like failures because they couldn’t keep up with their peers. I always sought to provide students with accomplishments," Fowler explains. "I empathized with their experiences." Dissatisfied with his $15,000 annual teaching salary, Fowler began moonlighting at The Reading Game, a tutoring company in Huntington Beach, California. In 1978, he made the decision to leave teaching and commit full time to The Reading Game. After four months, he approached his boss with the idea of franchising the company to other dissatisfied teachers. However, his boss rejected the proposal, leading Fowler to take matters into his own hands. Recognizing the potential for providing extra assistance to numerous children, Fowler seized the opportunity. Over the next year, he developed his own program based on successful methods implemented in his own classroom. Using the $14,500 he obtained from selling his home, Fowler established a prototype center in Portland, Oregon. By 1980, he had sold his first two franchises.

Fowler attributes some of his entrepreneurial drive to his mother, who gifted him a paperback book called "Ten Young Millionaires" for his 31st birthday. This book detailed the lives of successful entrepreneurs like H. Ross Perot and Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. After reading the book during his winter break, Fowler became convinced that he could achieve similar success. "I knew that sticking with public schools probably wouldn’t lead me to financial prosperity," Fowler acknowledges. "I am forever grateful to my mother for giving me that book." Despite facing opposition from his teaching colleagues, who deemed his decision to leave teaching for a risky venture as crazy, Fowler sold Sylvan in 1985 but remained as the company chairman. However, when Sylvan executives decided to relocate the company headquarters to Montgomery, Alabama from Bellevue, Washington, Fowler, then 40 years old, chose early retirement. In 1987, he embarked on a three-month journey with his family on his 50-foot "Ocean Alexander" cabin cruiser. Upon returning to his waterfront home on Mercer Island near Seattle, Fowler pursued his passion for drawing and painting.

Eventually, Fowler relocated his family to Hawaii. He purchased an extravagant house near a golf resort in Kaanapali, located on the island of Maui. He spent his time swimming, golfing, and chauffeuring his children to school. However, he soon grew bored with the leisurely lifestyle.

Being a Teacher at Heart

In the beginning of 1992, the Fowlers returned to Mercer Island for a visit, but they ended up staying. During their visit, Fowler’s wife enrolled their 3-year-old daughter Nicole in a Little Gym in the Seattle area, and Fowler found himself once again captivated by the franchise. Before leaving for their cruise, Fowler had met Robin Wes, the founder of Little Gym, but at the time, he didn’t see its potential and simply thought it was a cute little program. However, this time around, he saw the connection between Sylvan and Little Gym. Little Gym was teaching children the necessary skills for school and life, such as cooperation, risk-taking, following directions, and building self-confidence – all of which Fowler had been focused on while working with kids at Sylvan. With this realization, Fowler joined Little Gym as the chairman and chief executive officer of the company. He planted the seed of franchising and also developed "Little Gym On Wheels," a program in which a fleet of vans brings the Little Gym experience to day-care centers and other locations.

At present, Fowler owns 42 percent of the company. Despite its rapid growth, Little Gym has not yet become profitable. Franchisees, including former gymnasts and burnt-out Wall Street bankers, undergo training at the Little Gym International College of Fun and Fitness located in Kirkland, a suburb of Seattle. The company is expanding internationally, with plans to open gyms in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Additionally, Fowler is working on a new program at Little Gym that aims to emotionally, intellectually, and otherwise prepare children for their first day of school. This program will be tested by surveying 1,000 1st-grade teachers across the country and conducting field tests as early as this summer. Fowler expresses his desire to have teachers provide him with a picture of what a prepared child looks like on their first day of class.

Meanwhile, Fowler is back to working long hours, sometimes up to 80 hours a week. Since moving from Hawaii, he has only visited once for four days. However, his ultimate goal is to return to teaching, but this time he wants to teach teachers. Fowler states that he will always have the heart of a classroom teacher, even though he acknowledges that it may mean taking a pay cut. The only question is when this transition will take place.


  • kaylarusso

    Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.



Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.

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