Quechee — Parents in Hartford appear to have discovered a smart way for their young children to burn off Saturday morning energy.
The Hartford Parks and Recreation Department’s Smart Start basketball program is in the midst of a six-week curriculum, introducing 3- to 5-year-olds to the basics of the sport in the Ottauquechee School gymnasium.
Facilitated by Jay McDonough, the department’s program coordinator, Smart Start incorporates the principles of a program designed by the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a national nonprofit advocating for safe and positive youth athletics.
Similar to its soccer and T-ball versions — both of which Hartford also offers during the fall and spring seasons, respectively — Smart Start basketball involves a series of stations in corners of the gym for the children to practice skills. Saturday’s included dribbling and ball handling, shooting, passing-catching and running-agility. Split into groups of about five, a parent of each leads their tyke through the drills.
“It’s good for so many reasons,” said McDonough. “It helps them with basic motor skills, and with the parental participation, it’s pretty relaxed. It helps the kids build confidence in those abilities. It’s also a social experience because they’re mixed together with other kids. They’re sort of learning about teamwork and sportsmanship at the same time.”
That is, without all of the pressures of competition. While the kids may occasionally glance at the peer next to them to see how they’re measuring up, Smart Start comes without all the shouting of “Shoot!” or “Pass it!” from well-meaning parents and coaches.
“With some of the local school programs, it’s all about games, games and more games,” said Quechee resident Mollie Jewett, whose 5-year-old daughter, Violet, was having success shooting a miniature ball into a 5-foot-high basket. “The fact is they’re not ready for that yet at this age. You’ve got to have the basic skills first. Plus, this is a confidence-builder. The first week she couldn’t do the feet shuffle (in the agility station) without touching her feet together. This time, she can.”
Sam Ogden, also of Quechee, knows his 4-year-old son, Bailey, hasn’t identified his favorite sport yet. That’s fine by Dad, as long as Bailey is enjoying himself.
“I was reading an article recently that early specialization is not always a good thing,” said Sam Ogden, whose son turns 5 next month. “When we’re that young, our bodies are still wanting to try new things. One thing I can tell is that he is inclined to sports. We did the soccer one in the fall, and I think he had just as much fun with that. I also think it’s just a good way for him to meet other kids in the community.”
And get moving around. As any parent of a typical preschooler knows, physical vigor is a productive way to prevent the house from becoming a child’s de facto messy playground.
“The whole day is a lot better when he has a way to channel his energy in the morning,” Ogden said.
“Five-year-olds don’t sleep in,” added Alissa Crossett, of Wilder, while leading her son, Brycen, through the agility exercises. “You have two options on Saturday mornings. You can wake up, watch TV and be lazy around the house, or you can get out and do something. Obviously, this is a lot better for them.”
Last Saturday was particularly eventful, each kid receiving a bright orange numbered T-shirt prior to the start of the program. When it was done, they all lined up for keepsake photographs.
It was an exciting day for 4-year-old Ellie Lamotte, whose older brother, Keegan, 6, also helped out before participating in the grade school-level basketball program that began after Smart Start wrapped up.
“She’s got older brothers, so she’s always trying to keep up with them and participate in things,” said Ellie’s grandmother and foster parent, Sue Ring. “This is a stable environment for her, and she likes being out here, making friends. One of the other girls here is our neighbor, so they might be in the same kindergarten class next year.”
McDonough began the session with warmup drills, including forward and backward running — the latter eliciting at least one tumble — as well as a series of 10 jumps as the children counted out loud (emphasis on loud).
After that, it was beholden on parents to literally become low-level coaches, observing printed instructions posted to the wall of each station before engaging in the activities.
The ballhandling drills involved dribbling with both hands and around cones. Shooting included front-angled, free throw-style releases from the front of the net, as well as ones from the side without the benefit of a backboard. Passing and catching included bounce passes from 5 to 10 feet away, while the agility station called for more backward and forward running as well as a side-to-side shuffle.
“It’s kind of nice we don’t have to come up with the activities,” Alissa Crossett said. “It’s all kind of laid out for us.”
The dribbling drill between Josh Wilson, of White River Junction, and his son, Emmett, appeared to be going smoothly until one of Dad’s bounces came back up and glanced off the 4-year-old’s nose
“Other than that, he’s been liking it,” Josh Wilson said.
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3225.