Forget arts and crafts. With parents on the hunt for enriching programs to fill their children’s after-school schedules, a roster of unusual activities is popping up around the country. Kids as young as 7 can learn the swinging trapeze, how to survive in the wilderness — even Krav Maga, or Israeli combat fighting.
“Kids are learning things they can’t learn in soccer or swimming,” said Michelle Wing, owner of It’s Yoga, Kids, in San Francisco. “Yoga helps them develop mental focus. If you’re not paying attention in yoga, you’ll fall over.”
Tony Deis, who founded a children's wilderness survival program in Portland, Ore., said his program is a way for kids to be kids again. “We immerse kids all day long in school and things that are so abstract. There’s no hands in the dirt. Our goal is to get them outside. It’s a good counterpoint to being inside all day long.”
Check out these activities; they're so fun, you may just wish you were a kid again.
Imagine your 6-year-old learning how to make fire, build a shelter in the woods, track animals and forage for edible plants. That’s what children ages 5 through 13 do at TrackersPDX in Portland, Ore. The program picks them up at school and transports them “into a fantastic world of adventure and ancient skills.”
Tony Deis, who founded the program in 2004, said parents like it because it helps children feel connected to the land — and inspires their imaginations. “We want everything we do to be compelling and epic,” he said. “We think: ‘If I were 10 years old, what would be my wildest dream?’ And then we offer it.”
Case in point: Whittling wood. In a carefully supervised environment, kids as young as 6 learn how to whittle their own primitive tools and weapons. In archery, young children shoot foam arrows; older kids use real ones. On some afternoons, the children learn to follow animal tracks and get stealth training.
“This is stuff we all used to do as kids riding our bikes around town — spot an abandoned field and go exploring,” said Deis. “Now with good reason, parents don’t let their kids do these things. We can provide it in a safe and structured way.”
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Krav Maga, the official self-defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces, has become popular on the gym circuit in the last decade. As the no-nonsense fighting method of choice for many law enforcement agencies like the FBI, Krav Maga is known to be a particularly efficient way of kicking butt in hand-to-hand combat.
So why would you enroll your second grader in it?
“We firmly believe that every kid should have the confidence to defend themselves in a variety of situations,” said Shannon Lukeman-Hiromasa, co-owner of Colorado Krav Maga. “We teach them how to deal with realistic scenarios in a fun environment.” Her Broomfield, Colo., gym offers toddlers, elementary and middle school students a common sense approach to self-defense — and specific advice, like how to evade a choke hold. The kids learn palm thrusts, facing out (dropping your weight to make it more difficult for an attacker to push you down), and dropping like a turtle and kicking your legs in the air like crazy.
Four levels of classes let kids work their way up to a black belt in the practice. It’s not just about reaching that milestone, however. Instructors say it’s about personal safety and how to make your body powerful.
Kids say Krav Maga gives them courage to stand up to bullies at school. It helps others focus. Parents say their kids are more respectful at home and seem more self-confident.
Said Lukeman-Hiromasa: “Quiet, shy kids are able to speak out and try new things, even other sports they didn't have the confidence to try before.”
There are about 240 studios around the country that offer Krav Maga; many offer classes for kids. To find a studio near you, visit Krav Maga Worldwide.
Dungeons and Dragons for the wee set
With the popularity of the Harry Potter series, it’s not surprising that kids are interested in wizardry, sword fighting and potion making. In Guard Up’s Wizards & Warriors after-school program in Burlington, Mass., kids get to play “a computer game without the computer,” said director Meghan Gardner. The program is an interactive adventure where kids (called “heroes”) play characters in an ongoing storyline that picks off where it left the week before.
And they pick up some cool knowledge along the way: They interact with characters from real-world mythology and literature, learn basic chemistry during “potion making,” and read ancient scrolls written in Latin. Since the kids help determine the direction of the fantasy tale, they also “get to decide how the story ends,” said Gardner.
While Gardner said their direct involvement fosters a strong sense of self, that’s not why they keep coming back. “They’ll tell us, ‘It’s more fun than a computer game,’ ” she said. Parents like the program so much that some of them volunteer to be the monsters. “You wouldn’t believe how many times we hear the words, ‘Where were you when I was a kid?’ ”Story: Kids can pull off a good kooky clothing combo
Yoga and meditation
When kids arrive for yoga at It’s Yoga, Kids in San Francisco, they grab a mat, find a place in the circle and check in about their day: Are they tired, excited, ready for practice? The teacher will mention a special word they’re focused on that day, a universal theme inspired by yoga, like mindfulness, thoughtfulness, contentment or sharing.
Then they bend and stretch their bodies through a series of modified asanas, or postures. When they do downward dog, yoga’s famous resting pose, they bark; in “cobra,” they hiss like snakes.
“Our kids love inversions,” said Michelle Wing, who founded the studio in 2006 after three years of careful research into children and yoga; the idea for a kids’ yoga studio came to her during shavasana, or resting pose, at the end of a yoga class.
Wing says the most important lesson kids can learn from yoga is how to self-regulate. “In a world where everything is moving so fast, kids need to know how to pump their energy up and calm their energy down.”
That’s where the rhythmic breathing can help. Last year, one 6-year-old boy enrolled because he had a lot of anxiety. After a few yoga classes, his mother found him in his bedroom doing a breathing exercise. Said Wing: “It’s all about opening up your heart.”
What kid doesn’t dream of flying? Those with a hankering to sail through the air can do it at one of Trapeze School New York's five locations around the country — Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Boston.
Parents worried about safety can rest easy. Kids are constantly spotted, strapped in when flying, and if they fall, a soft, squishy net is there to catch them.
While some say that trapeze offers students physical, mental and spiritual benefits, students describe a more simple reason they love it: As you soar through the air, so does your spirit.
"Kids are more fearless than adults," said Katy Nielsen, marketing director of Trapeze School New York in Chicago. There, kids as young as 6 start their training with a knee hang, hooking their knees on the trapeze bar, letting go with their hands and swinging. Eighty percent can do it by the end of their first class, said Nielsen. "It's amazing how quickly they progress."
Children of all ages can take a sample class or enroll in a series. For more information, visit Trapeze School New York’s website
After a long day at school, what can kids do to blow off steam? Use their imaginations.
At the Bricks 4 Kidz after-school program, with locations around the country, kids spend an hour creating with LEGOs, working to build a model of something they’re studying in the class, like an invention or a famous building.
Since school-aged kids of all ages are invited to join in the fun, Bricks 4 Kidz stocks LEGOs in all sizes, from large to small. If it’s rainy or kids need an afternoon of imaginative play, parents can also take them to Bricks 4 Kidz to unleash their creative energy in the LEGO room.
What do kids get of the class? While they may know how to build with LEGOs, Bricks 4 Kidz said that with “a little coaching they can learn engineering, architecture and concepts of physics and mathematics.”
It’s where playtime and problem solving go hand in hand. For more information, visit their website.
Read more from Brooke Lea Foster at Mommy Moi