Posts Tagged ‘kids parties’

Feet Stuck in Cement? Try Balloon or Bubble Ball!

May 16, 2017

Baseball Balloons

So today I got a nice email from one of my BlastBall coaches who used the “Shield Ball” technique. Coach P’s kids had a great time, but she ran into an issue:

Thanks so much. We used the velcro paddles again yesterday – shield up, shield down and coaches were throwing. I need to find a better way to get the kids to use their feet to move towards the ball. I suppose, it’s just a certain fear that needs to be overcome with time.

Indeed, Coach P stumbled upon a key issue with young kids catching a ball in the air.  The combination of their focus on the right upper body mechanics combined with that Lizard Brain fear of that ball tends to pour cement around the kids’ feet.  Indeed if you picture just about any 3-5 year old trying to make their first catch, it is two hands outstretched with palms up, leaning over, with their feet so firmly planted on the ground you’d think there were roots growing from the bottom of those light-up sneakers.

So how do you change up this drill to get the kids using their “Crab Crawl” and shuffling their feet to the ball like we teach when they’re fielding grounders?

You don’t.

At least not at first.  As noted in the “First Catch” post, catching a ball in the air is hard, and if you’re using the ball and a Velcro pad where a pre-K kid may have maybe a second to make a reaction, you’re asking a LOT of a tot to get them moving their feet, too.

Instead of attempting to roll that particular boulder up the hill, let me suggest thinking about what kind of objects kids actually chase around that are already in the air.  Let’s skip butterflies, as those are hard to collect and a bit cruel to use.  Instead, let’s get round—balloons and bubbles.

Balloons (air filled, as it’s going to be a quick game if you use helium…) work wonderfully because as they float and move, they force kids to move their feet and track-and-catch.  And because they are light there is absolutely no fear.  Indeed, I’ve found it’s hard to get a kid not to chase after a loose balloon.

Bubbles work similarly.  Of course, there’s less of an opportunity to actually “catch” the bubble, but I have yet to meet the kid (or adult, come to think of it) who doesn’t enjoy bursting a bubble or two (metaphor sold separately).

So now that you get the general idea, here are some tips to use balloons or bubbles to get those kids moving their feet:

  • Bigger Balloons: I’ve tried a variety of sizes, and really your standard sized balloon works best, at least at first. The smaller balloons (say, like the size of a water balloon) works okay, but really doesn’t have the same length of lift or movement.  At least at first, you want the kids to have the time to see it, move their feet, track, and let it come down.  The smaller balloons can be helpful when kids have gotten the hang of it a bit more, and are a “fear-free” way to get kids catching once they’re moving their feet.
  • Bigger Bubbles: I’ve tried this a number of ways and I highly recommend the “bubble wands” where you can create a single, large bubble rather than the machines that let the bubbles fly free.  It is very difficult for young kids to focus on their footwork when there are a zillion bubbles darting around.  They want to run and pop ‘em all!  But the wands that make the big bubbles give you control.  You can make one big one, or a few at a time.  Not only are big bubbles super cool, you can keep them trained on a single target (which is what they’re supposed to be doing once a real ball comes into play) and make sure they are not just moving, but moving correctly.
  • Four-Way Footwork: Let’s talk movement. Like with ground balls, the most important movement we’re focused in on is that lateral shuffling of the feet (as mentioned earlier, I call it the “Crab Crawl”).  We don’t want them turning and running side-to-side and taking their eye off the ball.  Because of that, at the entry level I teach my kids to shuffle in every direction.  At higher levels of play, we replace a backwards shuffle with a “drop-step” back but I feel that’s WAY too advanced.  If they can shuffle their feet to the ball/bubble/balloon in any direction rather than just running after it, that’s a win.
  • High Flies vs. Low Throws: When using balloons (and to a lesser extent bubbles) you can control how high the object goes into the air.  For the high-flies, I’m a big fan of having the kids dispense with a glove, and even their hands.  Instead, their goal should be to allow the balloon to bop them in the nose.  This helps them track the ball longer and get the muscle memory to see the ball all the way in.  You can then progress to soft balls that combat gravity a bit less but still allow the kids to “bop” instead of catch.  With more straight-on throws, coaches can focus on the “catch-and-cover” method trying to get the player to “hug the ball.  This means putting their catching hand out like a shield (so “fingers up” or “fingers down”), but then wrapping the throwing arm around the balloon which will help them to understand how the throwing hand should help secure the ball with a regular two-handed catch.
  • Back to the Ball: Once the kids are getting the foot movement, it’s great to at least go one round at the end trying to do it with an actual ball. Even if they’re not immediately Willie Mays, it will help to reinforce the overall goal of putting the feet and the hands together.  Progressing back to the Velcro “shields” and telling them which direction the ball will be going can help stair-step their development.
  • It Works for Hitting, Too: I play a game called “Bubble Blasters” where I give the kids pool noodle bats and let them whack at bubbles, giving them extra points if they can burst one using the proper technique. You can use a soft bat for this, too, but pool noodles give you extra safety and can allow you to have multiple players giving it a go at the same time.  Balloons can work here, too, though they don’t have quite the same satisfying pop as taking a big ole’ bubble downtown.  For the more advanced players and/or on hot days, this game with water balloons can be a ton of fun (and a great game for a baseball-themed party).

So there you have it.  First catching without a glove, and now without a ball!  I’m good as long as it’s not catching without a coach…

Have FUN out there!

Backyard Birthdays Hits the Road: Gunnar Golf!

October 11, 2012

Heaven lies on a paper plate

Okay, I admit it, I’m firmly planted in the OCD department about a few things.  Pizza, for example, is a bit of an obsession.  To me, only New York Pizza is pizza. When we went up to Citi Field to see the Mets as part of our follow the Mets on July 4th tradition, I discovered my kindred (though somewhat more potty-mouthed) spirit, Collin Hagendorf of the Slice Harvester blog.  He led us to New York Pizza Suprema right across the street from MSG.  And to quote one of my pop-icon heroes, Special Agent Dale Cooper, New York Pizza Suprema must be where pies go when they die.

I guess I love good pizza so much because, for me, a real slice is a Ratatouille moment.  When the crust has that soft, almost melty (I know that’s not a word, but it’s the best way of describing the sensation) inner layer, but that crisp snap at the bottom; when the cheese has that perfect light sheen of oil, and the cheese achieves that impossible balance between melting in your mouth yet still providing a springy chew; when the sauce is perfectly wed with a hint of sweetness and garlic—I’m instantly eight years old again, sitting at Angelo’s pizza in Queens, with my father, step-mother, sister, and step sisters, my Batman sneaker-clad feet dangling from my chair above the floor, melting in my chair as the pizza melts in my mouth.

Washington Deli’s selection. Highly recommend the basil slice, and they even have a solid Vegan slice!

So when pretender pizza comes rolling around, not only the taste, but even the look…even the smell just feels like an insult to what pizza is supposed to be.  It’s why I was so delighted that Nationals Park decided last year to bring in Flippin’ Pizza, a reasonable approximation to a New York slice—the perfect ballpark food for this vegetarian.  And, other than saying goodbye to the amazing people I worked with at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hardest thing about leaving was that I would no longer be just two blocks away from Washington Deli, the best New York slice I’ve had outside of NYC itself (the only ones who really get the crust right!).

I know what you’re saying.  “Uh, Scott?  Wasn’t this post supposed to be about something called Gunnar Golf?”  Well, like I said, OCD.  But I’m getting there.

Like pizza, one of my most keen early childhood memories is of golf.  But not just any golf.  About a half-hour’s drive away from my first Atlanta home was a miniature golf course called Sir Goony Golf.  Now long gone (though it looks like there’s one still standing in Lake George, NY), I remember driving down Roswell Road, seeing the trademark red roof of Pizza Hut (blech!) on the left, and knowing that just one light later, over the horizon, would pop the massive yellow Tyrannosaurus Rex using its stubby little arm to bounce a plywood caveman up and down like a yo-yo.


From hole number one, when you faced down Humpty Dumpty sitting on that big ole’ wall, you knew you were in for a challenge.  An ostrich dipped its beak into a hole.  An alligator with glowing eyes peeped its fanged mouth open just long enough to allow a ball to pass.  A castle’s door teased and blocked.  And, of course, there was that T-Rex.  Challenging?  Yes.  But, because it was “Goony” there was that sense of imagination, of silliness, of plain, simple, fun that couldn’t be beat.  Seeing grown ups, from my Mom and Step-Dad, to my Grandma and Grandpa who were real golfers hem-and-haw over just missing the Kangaroo’s pouch made the whole experience truly fantastic, with the emphasis on “fantasy.”  And when we went to visit Grandma Helen and Grandpa Nat down in Florida, and learned that there was a Goony Golf with three different courses, including a massive Purple People Eater whose black, bumpy tongue revolved around to tip balls in or drive them out?  Let’s just say that I was eying the haunted house hole to see if it had indoor plumbing.

Oooh, on this hole, they have TWO sticks! How wildly creative!

In some sense, I think this is why I really don’t like normal golf.  But I do understand its appeal–nice walk, fun cars, and cocktails while “sporting.”  What I really, really cannot stand is that miniature golf impostor…putt-putt.  Yes, some of you may think that putt-putt and miniature golf are the same thing.  Indeed, many putt-putt courses mask themselves in the name miniature golf the same way Pizza Hut uses the word “pizza.”  But while miniature golf is an invitation to a world where creatures monstrous and mythic work to block your every path, putt-putt puts a stick in the way of the hole.

So, much as my excess of snobbery runs toward poor pizza, so too does my nose lift upward at putt-putt courses.  To me, they symbolize the laziness that beset family entertainment when video games first really hit in the 1980s.  My beloved Goony Golf and its T-Rex became extinct, and instead my friends were having their birthday parties at Putt-Putt Palace, a large arcade with a flat, listless, lazily constructed course attached as an afterthought.  I mean, if you can play pretend inside a TV screen, why bother with the real thing, right?

Camelot Mini-Golf instead of Disneyland? Oh yes, we did.

Fortunately, real miniature golf is not dead.  Indeed, Kir, the boys, and I have been from Stony Brook, NY to Anaheim CA and many points in-between in the hunt for the most challenging, most goony golfing in the land.  Unfortunately, however, none of those courses are in the Washington, DC area.  Closest to us is the county-run Upton Hill Park, a pretty-decent putt-putt course as the well-manicured grounds do have some passably clever holes, including one huge hill the kids love to run down (and all parents therefore fear).  And when Gunnar, who has started doing real mother/son golf lessons (which is awesome) absolutely begged me to have a mini-golf party, Upton Hill was really the only option that we could reasonably ask guests to come to.

This, of course, brings me to OCD, Mk. 3—the birthday party.  I won’t go into details here, but for those of you who haven’t been following my blog for very long, I hold a very special place for the birthday party as a cornerstone of childhood memory.  It is a wonderful opportunity to make kids feel special and also, in my typical SHYB fashion, provide opportunities to teach fundamental teamwork and conflict partnership skills.  Just use the search function on my home page and type in the word “birthday” and you’ll get a flavor about how I’ve tackled everything from Middle Earth to the Olympiad in our back yard.

So I was, of course (no pun intended) unwilling to simply sit back and allow Gunnar’s party to simply be a walk around some passable putt-putt holes.  At first, I envisioned bringing Halloween props and doctoring up each hole so it more closely resembled a real mini-golf course.  But as obsessive as I am about these things, that seemed a bit too high maintenance even for me.

Now THAT’S a Clown’s Mouth!

Then, I remembered my experience at a very clever indoor mini-golf course in Atlanta, Monster Mini Golf.  In one particular hole, at the beginning, there was a spinner.  When you spun, whatever you landed on, you had to putt that way.  Among the options were putting with your eyes closed, and having someone lie down on the course to make themselves an obstacle.  And then it dawned on me—if you can’t make the course itself goony, change they way you play the course so it’s creative and silly.  And so, Gunnar Golf! (patent pending) was born.

The Gunnar Golf Cup!

You’ll find here the Gunnar Golf! setup, and the many games I came up with, from blindfold putting to using your club like a pool cue to the player favorite, using the “crazy ball” which was an Unputtaball, a weighted golf ball that would turn in random directions upon hitting it.  One thing I did which really helped keep things competitive, but friendly was have two tiers of competition.  The 5 lowest individual scores would qualify for a chance to go to an individual playoff to win the Gunnar Golf! Cup, each group was also a team.  The top team would get a chance to pick their prizes first at the end, so the members of each group were actually rooting for each other and helping each other out.  It really helped keep the teasing and bragging to a minimum, which I think helped provide a nice balance between individual achievement and teamwork that I always like to have as a party base.

Upon seeing the list, both my wife and my Mother-in-Law felt that playing Gunnar Golf! every hole would take too long.  I agreed, and we did it every third hole.  That allowed us to stagger our starting hole (Group 1 started at hole 1, Group 2 at hole 2, etc.) and keep the action going.  Even then, we didn’t get through a full 18 holes within our two hour play/eat cake window.  So if something like this seems interesting to you, think to either simplify the game play, or allow yourself a little extra time.

The kids’ reactions to Gunnar Golf! were very interesting.  Most really enjoyed it, but some said they like regular golf better.  When I asked why, it wasn’t that the challenges weren’t fun, but that playing the regular way was easier.  Unlike when you are creating a world (and rules) from scratch in your backyard, when you do an on-site party like this and twist conventional rules, the kids know that there is another way to play it, so that all-important suspension of disbelief is a bit harder to accomplish for some.

$4 of fun

That said, the kids thought the Unputtaball was extremely cool.  Frankly, you could just bring one of those and have a random draw on who has to play with that, and I think you’d have a hit.  But what I also found interesting is that the kids really gravitated to the mathematics aspects of the game.  Just the concept that you could do better than a hole in one, and the concept of that mathematical impossibility, that you could get a hole in negative numbers, was very intriguing to them.  And that really helped in one case, when one player who had one of the higher scores was the first to get a hole in -2.  Even though he struggled elsewhere, he had bragging rights over that (and used it!).

The other popular mathematical concept was the Math Ball holes.  Not only did the kids enjoy using their noodle trying to figure out the math problem, but because they got to do it before or after the hole, they knew that it was separate from playing the hole itself.  It combined the mental and physical by keeping them separate.  It really intrigues me to think about the possibilities of combining physical activities with mental exercises to help make learning more fun and fun activities more educational.  So, in that alone, this was a very worthwhile experiment.  And, of course, for the Mr. Numbers Birthday Boy, Math Ball was, slightly inaccurately, a no-brainer.

And so another birthday passes, and thanks to the “Caddy Crew” of Kirsten, Mor-Mor, and Gus, we were able to take the backyard birthday on the road and show that you don’t need a giant yellow T-Rex to make golf some goony, creative, and even educational fun.

And the pizza after the golf wasn’t half-bad either.