Feature Article - January 2018
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Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

But the Best Youth Sports Programs Also Educate

By Rick Dandes

Programs That Work

When Miste Adams, ?recreation superintendent, ?National Trail Parks and Recreation District, in Dayton, Ohio, looked to start activities for kids, she used the NAYS program as a guideline.

"Why re-invent the wheel?" she said. "We started a program for 3-to-5-year-olds, although I think that is a little young to start kids in organized sports. But NAYS has a program more designed for social interaction, and developing motor skills. It sounds easy, but when you put kids together, it's not so easy. The lesson plan is all laid out, so we looked at that and molded it to fit our program needs."

At 3 to 5, some kids have not been to preschool or kindergarten, so things like asking them to line up aren't so simple. They may not know what a line is. "We are teaching them not only a sports skill, but also some of the basic things," Adams said, "things that are also incorporated into the preschool and kindergarten testings here in Ohio. Parents want their kids to be in these programs, so we decided we might as well do it in an appropriate way because it is in such hot demand. We would have 3-year-olds playing a world series in T-ball if we left it to them. With this program, we are giving the parents what they want, but also doing what is best for the kids. Our philosophy here is put the kids first."

It is not always easy going against the parents, Adams said, but once the parents get the kids out there on the field, "everyone thinks their kid is a star in the backyard kicking a ball or shooting a basket," she said, laughing.

Adams runs soccer, T-ball and basketball programs that in just one year have been successful, and much needed.

In New Orleans, one of the things that Shonnda Smith, chief programming officer, New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, does is pay careful attention to the coaching certification process, "making sure our coaches are background checked. Making sure they are going through skill-based training. We meet a lot of moms and dads who want to coach but have no understanding of fundamental skills behind the sport. We want to provide a safe environment for the kids. We also do a rules clinic, which explains different rules. We want our coaches to know how to act and are responsible."

"Children want to have fun," added Victor Richard, CEO of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. "One of the points that I constantly drill is relative to kids just wanting to have fun. They want to make friends. They love jumping into the dirt, or mud, or whatever. They love hugging a new friend, taking pictures. So on top of the structure, Shonnda has also put in work relative to teaching values, building character, teaching morals and also … having fun."

New Orleans' youth programs, such as a Pee Wee sports league, start kids at 3 and 4 years old. "Our biggest challenge," Richards said, "has been parent participation. Our goal is that we work with the 3- and 4-year-olds as they filter into our program, but hopefully we try to engage parents to stay involved longer in the program."

In Detroit, where a youth basketball program has attracted 6,000 participants annually (plus 600 in baseball and 200 to 300 in an aquatics program), children typically start as early as 3 years old, said Tracey Lawrence-Thomas, reservation and events coordinator, Detroit (Mich.) Parks and Recreation Department.

Their Pee Wee basketball program teaches basic skills, "teaching the fundamentals of the game," she said. "We don't keep scores. We are more concerned that the kids learn the basics. It is fun to watch for parents and spectators because all of the kids are out there having a ball. Most of the time their uniforms are falling off, but it is a great time for them. Eventually, they start playing other teams, when they get older, realizing people have to be substituted in and out, so they learn teamwork and sportsmanship."

Lawrence-Thomas runs the same type of program with baseball. "We have a program called Micro-Mini. This program starts with children as early as they can walk. At the earliest age, it is all about developing motor skills. We want them to learn how to move their bodies, how you throw the ball, developing that movement, how to make their legs and arms work together, developing a child's sight and listening skills, hand and eye coordination. We have some 1-year-olds out there, again, really basic physical stuff as they develop. That program eventually will lead into our T-ball program, where we get a lot of kids who come from the Micro Mini program.

"We have a high obesity rate among our youths," Lawrence-Thomas added. "Our children are so used to technology that they are getting away from doing active things outside. What we try to do here in Detroit is connect our communities with our facilities, our parks and our programs, so that kids can have a healthier lifestyle with just leisure activities. It does not have to be competitive, just something to get out there and keep yourself busy and motivated to do better things to become fit and healthy. That is what our programs are basically all about."