Loaded with energy, children love to invent and pretend. It comes naturally for them and is a huge component of play. With that in mind when choosing activities for your children, think of tennis: An open skills sport in which there are no set plays and no long stretches on a bench - but does offer constant movement.
In truth, there may not be a happier sports marriage for your children than tennis - the sport of a lifetime.
Children often get their first exposure to sport at a very young age through a parent or family member. As in other sports, this probably means going into the backyard with mom, dad or an older sibling and playing catch, kicking a ball between the rose bush and the hedge, or shooting a lightweight basketball into a 4-foot basket. The list goes on, depending on the sport. The common characteristic is that the equipment is smaller, lighter and the intent is to learn a very simple task: throwing, catching, kicking, dribbling or shooting. The instructions, if any, are generally brief and simple with the emphasis on activity. The duration is short because any activity is interesting for a brief period of time and could be interrupted by a passing butterfly or the discovery of a colorful flower in bloom.
By that same token, tennis can be a driveway or a playground activity. The goal of playing catch is to learn to enjoy throwing and catching, not playing baseball. The goal of driveway and playground tennis is to rally with either yourself or a family member and not to keep score. This is possible when everything is scaled down to the size of the child - that’s where QuickStart Tennis comes in.
QuickStart Tennis approved equipment brings tennis down to size for kids five to 10 years old - ages where youngsters could scarcely see over the net or swing a racquet properly on a regulation-sized court. This often leads to frustration and/or disinterest in kids who desire one principal outcome from their play time - fun! Being able to step in and play tennis right away through smaller-scaled equipment brings positive outcomes and a sense of empowerment – "Hey, I can do this!"
Not only that, you can do it at home with only a racquet and ball - that’s all you need to start.
"With equipment sized right for kids, based on the QuickStart Tennis play format, any child can start playing right away - even at home," says Kurt Kamperman, USTA Chief Executive, Community Tennis. "Smaller racquets and softer balls mean that you can create a safe and enjoyable tennis environment on your own driveway or cul-de-sac."
The most important variables are the ball, racquet and length of the court. It is a good thing that the driveway or playground space not be anywhere near the size of a regulation tennis court (which is 78 feet long by 27 feet wide). Even a space of 10 feet in length will work, provided that the racquets are short and the ball is light and slow. The "net" could be as simple as a line on the driveway/playground, rope or caution tape tied to a tree and chair across the driveway. A pop-up portable net is also an option. Lines can be drawn by using sidewalk chalk, or you can use the existing seams in the driveway or playground for the lines of the court.
Children under five years old should be using very short and lightweight tennis racquets in the 19- to 21-inch range. The ball should be a lightweight foam ball that rebounds well off the driveway/playground surface. Large foam balls with a diameter of around four inches are very forgiving if the surface is somewhat irregular. These lightweight balls will not travel very far or fast, and contact does not need to be made in the center of the racquet to make the ball go forward. The foam ball is easy on the arm and will not cause the racquet to twist in the hand of a child if hit off center.
The starting point for children is hitting the ball up in the air, letting it bounce on the ground and trying to hit it up again. This is a self rally, and children should attempt to hit the ball up as high as their head before the ball bounces so they can hit it again. This height is important because it gives kids an idea of how hard they must hit the ball to get it head high and allows them time to get in position to play the ball again after the bounce.
To develop better control and to create a challenge, a circle of about two feet in diameter could be drawn on the pavement as a target. This gives the youngsters something to aim for as they tap the ball up and try to land it on the target.
The next step is to do the same activity with the parent, but this time alternate hits. This is actually a mini rally since the ball is being alternately struck by the child and the parent. Once some level of success is attained, the next stage is to create two target areas a few feet apart. These targets should be on either side of a line, and the rally will go back and forth between the two targets placed three or four feet apart on the court.
So far, this is simple and the instruction has been visual - as in ‘See if you can hit the ball up like mommy.’Once you get to the stage of rallying the ball back and forth over a line to two targets, you are ready to put up the makeshift net using a rope or caution tape. You have now created a small tennis court and are ready to rally the same lightweight foam ball back and forth the over the net. The distance is short, the ball is very light and slow moving, and the racquet is short, so hitting balls with everything to scale will be a joy and countless hours can be spent hitting balls back and forth on the driveway or playground.
As the child becomes taller and stronger, boundary lines can be placed farther away from the net because the child will hit with more power. This gives the child an opportunity to rally by hitting balls after he or she bounces (ground strokes), and if he or she is closer to the net, out of the air (volleys). Eventually, children will learn to begin a rally and even play points with an overhand serve. They will also make up their own scoring and play different games.
Even older children can have an enjoyable driveway/playground experience in a limited space if the ball remains slow and light and the racquets remain short. Foam balls and 23- or 25-inch racquets over a net height of 30 inches will create enjoyable playing opportunities for children and adults alike on the driveway without a regulation-size tennis court.