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Never Too Young

April 22, 2013 02:55 PM
Coach Josie

Have you ever tried to teach a one year old tennis? It’s not easy, but Josie Caldwell, of Traverse City, Michigan, thinks it may not be as hard as some people think.

Using many of the innovative tools the USTA has been encouraging, such as mini nets, foam balls, and 19" racquets, along with its own creative age appropriate teaching elements, Tennis 1st has introduced tennis to nearly 100 students in its first 3 years of existence in its small community in Northern Michigan, with plans on the horizon to bring its proven teaching method to other areas soon. It is suitable on a gym floor, a tennis court, or practically any open play area, and kids have been lining up to get started.
As the Managing Member of Tennis 1st, L.L.C., along with her husband, Andy Caldwell, Josie and company have invested over three years of time developing and piloting this new tennis program for children under the age of 3. Children bring their parents, grandparents, or caregivers to Josie’s "Explore Tennis 1st" class that lasts for 40 minutes where they are encouraged to participate in several tennis activities set to music.
In 2010, Josie and Andy, both former full time teaching professionals, invited a group of friends for their oldest son, Simon, to join him in a tennis class. That group was made up of several three and four year olds, which was challenging enough, they thought. But, a problem quickly arose. Simon’s younger brother, Oliver, barely a year old at the time, had to watch from the sidelines. Josie, a former member of the Michigan State Women’s tennis team, was bothered by hearing Oliver cry in the background because he was too young to participate. "Oliver absolutely wanted to be out there with his big brother," Josie recalls, "But he wasn’t ready for the same type of structure we had for the older age group. We were kind of stuck because we really didn’t know if teaching children at age one or two on a tennis court and in a group was even possible," Josie said. However, after about four weeks of Oliver’s uncontrollable meltdowns, Josie’s determination to provide something better for her son took over.
Researching how to relate tennis to this age group in most tennis circles didn’t provide much help, so Josie went to locally based Mother Goose Time, an internationally renowned pre-school education materials distributor to seek additional guidance in working with young ages with an emphasis on social and emotional development. She then sought advice from Dr. Sherry Small, MD, a Pediatrician at Northern Michigan Medicine Pediatrics, who provided tips for what types of physical skill sets were important for young ones to cultivate. Oliver’s grandmother, Mary Jo Schmude, a former fourth grade teacher at Theo Eddy Elementary School in Saint Clair, Michigan, pitched in to collaborate on developing age appropriate equipment and volunteered as an instructor and aide.
After formulating a continuum that set a standard for developmental stages, Josie convinced a few of her peers who had children around Oliver’s age to come out and test the new program. Oliver finally had his own group of pals, some still yet learning to walk, but the smiles on everyone’s faces afterward said it all. Mary Jo,"Coach Grandma," joined Oliver as his helper while Josie assisted other children. "I was at work when Josie’s first pilot for this age group began, and I could only imagine what was going on with a group of one and two year olds running around tennis court holding racquets," Andy remembers, who assists in curriculum editing and instruction. "I literally watched the seconds tick nervously away on my watch because I thought it could be one of the best 40 minute experiences, or one of the craziest!" To his delight, Josie called him afterward and confirmed the class was a success. And, best of all, Oliver loved it too.
Parents were engaging in a unique activity for the first time with their children and the kids not only had a blast but they were also being exposed to exercise and motor skills that were going to benefit them on a tennis court, a baseball field, or in practically any athletic environment.
And, one of the most pleasant surprises was how happy the adults were. "The fact that their children were happy really motivated them to want to continue," Josie smiles. Many of them were surprised at how much their children could accomplish and it opened a new doorway for more adults to become interested for their children’s sake.
"We have heard so many comments like that children sleep better at night after class or parents tell us at home their kids keep asking when they will get to play tennis again," Josie mentioned. She gives adults little assignments they can practice at home with their children to help fuel their interest.
She notes that as a mother of three, (daughter Gloriana is now eleven months and is attending class) she expects kids to have little meltdowns or have moments when they may feel shy or afraid, and potty breaks are routine, but the rewards of getting these children exposed to tennis at such a young age and enriching their lives far outweighs any normal challenges typically associated with toddlers and social settings.
"When Tennis 1st was started, we wanted to build something in our community, but we have since grown to really feel like we have a responsibility to show future generations how to have fun running and playing and leading active lifestyles," says Josie. And she enjoys using her tennis knowledge as her gift to families in an activity where they can eagerly engage with each other, thus not only growing the game of tennis but ultimately helping people live happier and healthier lives for years to come.