The Drevitches, Week 17: Live-Blogging a 4-Year-Old's Gym Class

Filed under: Healthy Families Challenge

adam drevitch

Adam and Coach Duane, who makes Thursday "Sports Day." Credit: Gary Drevitch

I know what you're going to say.

Why does a 4-year-old need a sports class? Isn't he too young to learn real skills? Can't he just play outside and throw a ball around somewhere without professional coaches instructing him?

Well, you may have a point. We hear similar questions when we tell people what we pay for nursery school in New York City. The common refrain? "They're just playing with blocks, aren't they? How can it cost so much?"

On the other hand, there's a reason some of us trample each other to get seats in certain nursery schools, or race to sign up for certain after-school classes. It's because the pros do really know what they're doing, and they push lessons way beyond blocks.

Adam, our 4-year-old, is enrolled in the afternoon "Getting in the Game" class at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. He's loved it from the start. Every morning, he counts off the days of the school week until Thursday, or "Sports Day."

Why does he love it so much? I sat in on a recent class to find out.

The staff was in place before the seven boys and two girls arrived. When the kids were all lined up along the front of the gym, the coaches introduced each other.

"That's Coach Spaghetti!" said one, and the other responded, "And that's Coach Meatball!"

Corny? Sure. First time they'd used that joke? Doubtful. But did the kids crack up? Oh, yeah.

And then the 4-year-olds ran a few laps as the coaches yelled, "On your mark! Get set! Blueberries!" Then they did a couple of more laps, walking backward.

After they'd burned off that energy, Duane Castleberry, the JCC's athletics director, but "Coach Meatball" on this day, reviewed what they had previously learned about football, including identifying the laces and nose of the ball and the proper way to toss it -- "Hold, step and throw!"

Each child then got his or her own ball to practice throwing. After each throw, the kids retrieved their balls and ran them back to the starting line to throw again. Eventually, Duane announced, "Two more throws!" to help the kids prepare for the transition to what was next -- a core nursery-school concept.

Next the coaches prepared an obstacle course -- a very junior version of the drills you see NFL players run in practice -- requiring running, turning, balance and jumping. They told the class, "Now we're going to put all our skills together," and one of them ran through the course himself, calling out each step along the way as the kids tracked his moves. They then took their own turns, each child running the course several times, and improving with each lap.

When the kids stopped for a water break, Darren Michel, the JCC's senior director of athletics, joined the group. Darren is a beloved neighborhood figure, and Adam immediately ran over to him, calling, "Hug! Hug!" The kids love these coaches, and they behave for them.

Duane brought his charges back together for more football action. "What do you call the team trying to score?"

"The offense!"

"And what do you call the team trying to stop them from scoring?"

"The DEE-fense!"

The group divided into two teams for one-on-one, offense-versus-defense drills, one child running with the ball to the opposite end of he gym, the other trying to tag him or her. (Duane made sure everyone knew where to tag -- the arms or shoulders, never the head.)

These nine preschoolers, who before and after the class roamed about like unherded cats, were focused, having fun and taking it seriously, guided by the nonstop chatter of Duane and his team. And they were pretty good running backs, too, faking and juking and really playing the game. Coach Meatball was no joke. And when the game was done, everyone lined up to shake hands as Duane declared "a good game from both sides."

Now I knew why Adam comes home each week and tells me he's "the best one," although I now know that, well, he isn't. It's because Duane makes every kid feel like they're the best one.

After some more football drills, it was time for ... rubber-chicken relay races! (Or as the education theorists would call it, "building socialization skills.") And, finally, a review of what everyone had learned, and, of course, hand stamps. (There are always hand stamps when preschoolers leave an activity. I don't know why, but they always are.)

So, why is Adam's class worth it? It's well-managed and skills-focused, it encourages teamwork and sportsmanship, it builds confidence and the energy is relentlessly positive.

"Sports Day" works.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.