On Monday mornings in Jackson Park one might find a few waddling penguins dribbling eggs through a grassy version of the Arctic. That’s if you can get into the mind of a small child. The scenario is one of several that instructors create to engage SF Tots soccer program participants. SF Tots is in its 10th year offering soccer and basketball programs to kids between the ages of 18 months and six years old.
“We want them to learn sports as fun first, and we use story-based games to tap into imagination rather than just have them run around a cone fourteen times,” explained Brian Phelps, who owns and manages the company. In addition to the penguin scenario, the youngsters pretend to be monkeys chasing bananas; during running exercises they turn into cheetahs.
The 36-year old Phelps, who has a two-year old son of his own, bought the company in 2012. A former graphic designer who wanted to exit corporate life, he followed advice from his wife – now a stay-at-home mom, with a background in education – and enrolled in child development classes at Saddleback College. The Sunset District resident believes it’s the best career move he’s ever made. The greatest benefit, he said, is “to see them develop before your eyes and to see their faces light up when they accomplish something.”
In addition to the customary dribbling around cones and kicking balls into nets, Phelps offers offbeat drills, like throwing hula-hoops into the air and having the children chase them around the field. “It teaches them hand-eye coordination and to be able to follow,” he explained. “The main focus is child development that uses sports as a vehicle for that.”
It’s an inexact science though. On one Monday it was apparent that for some tots, who whiffed at the soccer ball, kicking the cones over was just as rewarding.
The company has 15 employees, four of them full-time. Some are former athletes. Others are students studying child development. While the program teaches fundamentals that’re useful for children who go on to join school teams, socialization, teamwork and motor skills are the main focus. During breaks between exercises the kids gather to sing songs, which Phelps explained aids vocalization skills.
SF Tots runs four basketball and soccer programs a year in various City locations, each lasting ten weeks. The basketball classes, which aren’t offered for those under two-and-a-half, are held at the Jackson Clubhouse on Saturdays. There’s a soccer class at Mission Bay Commons. Sessions are once a week for 40 to 50 minutes, depending on the participants’ age.
The teaching approach varies by age group. Classes for those under three-and-a-half require a parent to be present and involved. For soccer, that might mean having the toddler score a goal by kicking the ball between mom’s legs; for basketball, hitting the ball out of dad’s hands. As participants get older, exercises involve having them follow the ball closer and partnering up. After age three-and-a-half, there’s more focus on the sports themselves, with up to two-on-two scrimmages, and skill development, like kicking the ball with the side of their foot.
According to Phelps, at $225 weekend classes fill up quickly; for $185 weekday ones are less popular. Signup has begun for the spring season, which starts in March. Phelps said 3,000 children go through the program annually. SF Tots also provides programs for preschools, birthday parties – at a cost of $220 for 12 kids or less; $330 for larger groups – and private sessions.
At the end of the class instructors throw all the balls out and let the kids score goals. “Most important is having fun. That’s really what we are all about,” said Phelps.