As the 2020 Summer Olympics kick off, all eyes will be gazing toward the heavens (or rather, the ceiling of Tokyo’s Ariake Gymnastics Centre) for a glimpse of Simone Biles, the world’s most decorated gymnast. Biles is not just a living sports legend, with few competitors expected to rival her in her quest for even more golden hardware at this year’s Olympics. The 24-year-old is also a particularly irresistible childhood superhero and an especially appealing and teachable example of a growth mindset in action.
“Developmentally, younger kids are in a magical place where they have these amazing imaginations and anything’s possible—including being Simone Biles,” says Danielle Roeske, PsyD, executive director of Newport Healthcare, a series of nationwide mental-health treatment facilities for teens and young adults. “As they get older, they encounter a reality that challenges that and they may start to think, ‘I could never do that.’ Simone Biles offers an opportunity for kids to link their own setbacks to someone who also encountered obstacles along the way, but didn’t let them stop her.”
Whether your child is riding high on Biles mania and wants to play-act the part, or whether they could use some toys, books, and activities to help foster the resiliency their idol is famous for, here’s what the kids, parents, and experts we talked to recommend for any young Simone Biles superfan.
Dress the part with Simone’s line of leotards
Channeling Biles through clothing is easily done. The gymnast has her own line of leotards—Legacy by Simone Biles, manufactured by GK Elite Sportswear—which she dons at competitions. The pieces that she has bedazzled with “goat” imagery to “hit back at the haters” are all from her line, although she apparently saves the goat detailing for the individual leotards that only she herself wears. Her apparel is popular among the gymnastics crowd, with all the young gymnasts I spoke to for this article considering GK leotards the go-to choice. And although the high-end pieces can run close to $400, the line also features more-affordable options in the $40 to $80 range.
If your Biles fan would prefer an understated athleisure look, Biles recently forged a partnership with Athleta. The brand’s Simone Biles Edit line includes leggings, shorts, tanks, and tees geared toward the sophisticated teen or tween fashion lover at prices that top out at $50.
Books that bring Biles’s story to life
Inexpensive, easy-to-order inspiration can always be found in books, no matter the age or reading level of your future Olympian.
A Mighty Girl, an online girl-empowerment marketplace and community, has prepped for the Games with a landing page full of books they recommend about female Olympians. The list includes Biles’s memoir, Courage to Soar, which A Mighty Girl co-founder Carolyn Danckaert calls “wonderful” and particularly recommends for “older tweens and teens” roughly between the ages of 11 and 15.
“She has a very interesting story because of her challenging childhood in foster care; the book goes through all of those elements but also brings in a lot of inspiration. It’s really like memoir meets self-empowerment,” Danckaert says. “It frames Biles’s story as a combination of natural talent and resilient determination and really shows that, while she didn’t let anything stand in her way, she has also dealt with frustrations and setbacks. It shows that failures are a part of the process, and that’s okay.”
For readers 5 to 8 years old, the platform recommends the “lyrical biography” Flying High: The Story of Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles, which focuses heavily on Biles’s early experiences in foster care and with adoption. Danckaert is a fan of the “Little People, Big Dreams” book series—which does not currently include a book on Biles but does have one about soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe, as well as such modern-day trailblazers as Kamala Harris, Mindy Kaling, and Michelle Obama.
Of course, recommending that kids peel themselves away from a screen to stick their noses in a book can prove a Herculean task to some parents—including this writer, considering that my 8-year-old often exhibits Olympic levels of stubbornness when resisting the “chore” of reading. But encouraging a child to pick up a book after watching the world’s best athletes competing in a visually dazzling sport on a rarefied stage can seem even more challenging. To excite kids to learn more about Biles or other A-list athletes through the printed word, Danckaert suggests framing that 90-second floor routine or eight-second vault they just witnessed as the climactic culmination of a captivating story.
“If you really dig into that, there’s going to be drama to sell them on,” Danckaert says. “How did they get to that final point? How did they cross that finish line? ‘By the way, do you know what Simone Biles had to go through before she could perfect that routine?’ What’s everything else that came beforehand on that journey?”
Tools for enjoying the process toward the podium
Kimmi Berlin, co-founder of Build Up Boys, a nonprofit that provides educational resources to develop boys’ social, emotional, and relational skills, has found that her two children have had vastly different reactions to Biles’s prowess. While her 5-year-old son “said he wants to be just like her,” as Berlin recalls, her 8-year-old felt intimidated by Biles, worried that he would never be able to compare. “In that scenario, you have a kid who’s scared to try anything because they worry they’re going to fail,” Berlin says. “He can’t often tolerate … not being good at something immediately.”
To remedy this, Berlin suggests looking for activities that gear kids toward “being less attached to the outcome and more to the actual process.” Our guide to board games for kids has a variety of cooperative-game picks that focus on teamwork rather than winning, such as Dinosaur Escape Game and First Orchard. For an activity that’s all about the doing, with no end-of-task permanence, Berlin loves the Kodo Kids Sand Tray Studio Kit, a tabletop playset that comes with an array of sand-art accessories such as rolling pins, stencils, and pencil-like implements to carve lines into sand. It’s an investment at $430, but she says it’s built to last for years. For a fraction of that cost, the confidence-building Big Life Journal for Kids is a reader and activity book in one designed to help 7- to 10-year-olds “learn that process is fun in and of itself,” says Berlin. There’s also a Big Life Journal for Teens and Tweens, ages 11 and up. Wirecutter senior staff writer Ingrid Skjong recommends Me: A Compendium, a paper journal, and Me: A Kid’s Diary, an app, in our gift guide for 7-year-olds.
Games to “mentalize” a growth mindset
“For a while, I saw a psychologist once every two weeks,” Biles told Health last month in one of her frequent, on-the-record discussions of mental health. “That helped me get in tune with myself so that I felt more comfortable and less anxious.”
According to Roeske, the deceptively simple task of getting in tune, more comfortable, and less anxious with oneself is called “mentalization,” and it’s a technique that pays dividends no matter how young you are or how much work your Yurchenko double pike may need. “Mentalization is basically helping kids understand their own mental state,” she says. “Instead of, for example, feeling bad about having a tough time at soccer, it’s helping them think curiously about why they may have had a tough time.”
Equally simple is Roeske’s recommendation for activities that can show your kids how possible it is to cultivate a Biles-like mentality. She is a huge fan of playing checkers and chess to encourage mental reflectiveness in kids. “They’re both really thoughtful games, and of course, winning is the objective, but there’s also strategy and trying to think about how someone else might be thinking,” she says. “I think they’re both really useful to help kids develop a reflective capability, which is so far greater than any sport. That will really stay with them as human beings for life.”