In February of this year, we launched CrossFit Kids (6-8) and CrossFit Preschool (3-5) at CrossFit South Brooklyn (CFSBK). Though I had wanted to launch this program for a while, it took a backseat until our Front Desk manager Janelle—who has a lot of professional experience working with kids and is pursuing her masters in education—expressed interest in getting it started. I'd only dabbled in coaching kids during an internship after college and since I’m the youngest in my family, I didn’t have much experience working with these age groups. Even despite Janelle’s expertise, I was a little nervous—but up for the challenge and excited to expand my coaching horizons.
I’m not the only one who felt this way. At the CrossFit Kids seminar that Janelle and I took, we talked to a number of people with varying ranges of experience that all said they were nervous about running these classes. In today's article, I want to share a few things that we’ve learned since launching our CrossFit Preschool program (more on our CrossFit Kids later), in the interest of letting people know what to expect.
A Little More About Our Program
At CFSBK, we offer CrossFit Preschool (CFPS) two times a week, once on Mondays at 4:15pm and another at 10am on Sundays. Wednesday’s session ranges from two to six kids and our Sunday class usually lingers around 10 to 12. Janelle and I run both classes together. At our affiliate, we have three separate rooms to choose from—two 5,000 square-foot facilities on the ground level across the street from each other and another 1,200 square-foot room called "the annex" upstairs.
While the larger rooms provide more options for our programming and more space for the kids to run around, we've actually had an easier time with this group in the smaller room. There is much less real estate for curious kiddos to explore, and there are fewer distractions. The other spaces have a bit more foot traffic throughout the day and enticing things everywhere for them to want to crawl all over and play with.
Each class is one hour long—significantly longer than recommended by the CrossFit Kids seminar. But part of the draw for creating this program at CFSBK was to serve our members who are parents, since the class would allow them to take a group class while their kids are with us. We've had no problem filling the entire hour and keeping the kids occupied and happy.
Classes are usually divided into four 15-minute activities, but once you account for all the kid-herding to and from class, water breaks, and transitions between activities, we’re really talking about 45 minutes of active programming. While we plan our programming ahead of time, we also always have a backup plan, which enables us to flexibly respond to what's going on in front of us. If the kids don’t find the activity fun or we lose their attention and things melt down into a Lord of the Flies situation, we need to stop and change gears—but it’s also important to leave some room for the kids to improvise and dictate the direction of the activities. As long as they are meeting the objective of the activity and not causing a disturbance, we want to give them room to try out new things.
On average, an hour-long class actually takes us about an hour-and-a-half of Janelle and my time, which includes prep time, programming, and cleanup. Unlike an adult group class, you can't just walk in at the beginning of class and expect to get rolling. Unless you have a CrossFit Kids-specific gym, you're going to have to make your gym ready for the class (tying up rings, putting step stools near the water fountain, placing chalk buckets out of reach, etc.). If you were to spend the first five minutes of class setting up, the kids would go crazy with picking up orbs and making them into volleyballs, or putting cones on their heads. Also—it takes me a few minutes to switch out of adult mode and into children mode, and I have to get myself into the mentality of how I'm going to communicate and be present with these kids.
So, Here Are A Few Things We’ve Learned…
1. You need at least two coaches.
Classes with four or more kids are much easier to run when you have at least two coaches. We often organize activities where one coach makes sure the kids stay put while they wait for their turn, and the other coach oversees the flow of the activity itself. Two coaches also allows for things like potty breaks, triaging meltdowns, and setting up activities while one coach stays with the group.
Bottom line: Kids at this age have a tendency to want to go exploring, and if you only have one coach, your class can start to feel like an exercise in herding cats.
2. Use concrete floor markings.
At this age, kids respond much better to specific, clear instructions, especially regarding where and how to organize themselves. Any sort of markings on the floor can save a ton of time and effort in organizing activities. Saying “All kids stand on the blue line” works much better than “All kids stand in front of me,” which invariably leads to kids choosing random places all over the room in which to orient themselves and insisting that that’s exactly where they need to be, per your instructions. And technically, they’re right.
At CFSBK, we have a panel mat that we call “home base,” which is where we always return when we want to get everyone together for the next activity. This is a great rally point for getting everyone together again if things start to get a little hectic. Hoola-hoops, Ab-mats, gaffers tape, plastic stars, and cones are also invaluable for creating clear and communicable pathways for the kids to trace through in various activities.
A lot of time can be lost trying to orient and organize the kids if there are not clear boundaries and check points for them to get through. This might seem super basic, but it makes a world of difference.
3. Keep your programming simple.
This age group doesn’t do well with lots of rules and instructions for activities. If we’re doing an activity that includes too many elements, they will get confused and start to freelance the activity. It often helps to talk though or demo the first round or entire activity with the kids to keep them on the same page.
We also use a rule of thumb that rep schemes shouldn’t go beyond the age of the kids with which we’re working. They really don't know what comes after five, and can lose momentum or get distracted. We usually keep rep schemes to three to five reps and activities usually only have two to five elements within them.
Also, don't be afraid of repetition. While each week should not be a strict repeat of the previous week, keep activities they particularly enjoy in frequent rotation when programming classes. Preschoolers learn through repetition and the familiarity of the activity and seeing their own improvement over time increases their confidence, self-motivation, and independence.
4. Make a good first impression on the kids, and remember that they feed off your energy.
In order for preschool-age kids to want to participate, they have to feel safe in your space and around you. I happen to be a 30-year-old guy with a beard and lots of visible tattoos, so I was a bit nervous about what the kids would initially think of me. I overcame this by making a point to interact with a new kid’s parents and the other kids with whom I was already familiar in front of them. I also begin each class by being overly enthusiastic and excited to each one of them. Seeing me talking to their parents, goofing around with other kids, and being a friendly and approachable presence quickly puts new and nervous kids at ease and ready to play. At this age, kids often take more cues from what they see than what you tell them.
We’ve also learned that initiating conversation with simple, straight-forward questions that kids can answer easily speeds up the ice-breaking process. For example: “What’s that on your shirt?” “A pony?! Cool what color is it?” Getting them to laugh with simple but unexpected twists also works really well. I might follow up the pony-on-the-shirt question by asking, ”So, do you ride a pony to school everyday?”
Occasionally, a kid won’t want to participate in our activities for one reason or another, which needs to be fine. Instead of forcing them to join in, we simply ask that they sit in one area, usually “home base,” and watch the activity. Often they’ll see the other kids having fun and want to jump back in.
Another thing to keep in mind is that kids at this age are very focused on their own emotions, so you have to pay attention to their non-verbal cues and ask simple questions to check in when you notice something is off. You might simply ask, “Are you okay?” and listen to their answer. Take what they say seriously, and remember: kids have bad days too. They're not purposefully trying to make your life miserable when they’re unhappy. Sometimes they just don't have the vocabulary to express how they are feeling.
5. Make everything about having fun and moving around.
At the end of the day, the success of your program depends on how much fun the kids—and you—are having. If class is boring or the vibe is off, kids won’t hesitate to tell their parents they don’t want to come back. Part of the excitement comes in by our strategy of getting the kids to use their imaginations with activities to put their own stamp on it, which gives them greater ownership of the class. For instance, if we’re doing an obstacle course, we might have the kids imagine a scenario in which they’re ninjas breaking into a secret fortress, or they’re super heroes training for their next adventure. We’ve had a handful of parents tell us their kids have so far refused to participate in other sports or activities, but they won’t stop talking about CrossFit Kids.
Each class needs to be exciting, uplifting, and physically demanding (within reason, of course). Through running this program, I’ve heard a lot from parents about other activities their preschoolers are engaged in. I’ve heard about soccer practices where the kids spend three-quarters of the time in practice waiting in line for their turn, or where the skills will be too advanced. In our program, we want the games to be fast moving, we want the kids to be moving the majority of the time, and we want the activities to be tailored to their abilities.
For us, the litmus test for success is laughter and tired kids. If the kids are laughing and cheering throughout class, they’re going to want to come back—and if they’re tired and want to nap after class, the parents can’t thank us enough.
More on our CrossFit Kids program coming soon!
High Fives, Not High Reps: CrossFit Programs for Preschoolers Focus on Fun New York Times
CrossFit Kids Trainer Course CrossFit
CrossFit Kids Articles The CrossFit Journal