by Lisa Y. Taylor
This fall, Oksana Samorodova is headed to Penn State thanks to a scholarship she earned in fencing. When she started taking classes in the sport at the age of 9, of course she had no idea it would amount to a college career.
“Fencing is a one-person sport. Since there’s not a team you can rely on, I have learned how to depend on myself to do well,” she says.
For Samorodova and many students, a sport ignites their passion, but for others, dancing, music or language may fit their interest. As the school year kicks off, many parents are searching for enrichment activities that will enhance their children’s education and happiness, and maybe even inspire their future profession. Fortunately, diverse opportunities abound in San Antonio.
Samorodova is a student and coach at Alamo Fencing Academy, that instructs children 6 years and older. Students don protective gear including a helmet, chest guard and jacket. The sword, called an épée, is not sharp, but has a button on the end that lights up and beeps when a fencer touches it on an opponent.
“Fencing is often called physical chess because it requires the brain to think a step further than the opponent,” Samorodova says. “You also have to be athletic and have good coordination, and unlike many sports, you have to play the offense and defense at the same time.”
While fencing has traditionally appealed to more males than females, Samorodova says she has seen increased participation of girls when she competes in the sport’s national tournaments.
Another sports category that has made headway with girls is martial arts, says Nathan Sparrow, owner of Capoeira Brazilian Martial Art.
“Our classes are represented evenly by boys and girls,” Sparrow says. “Our form of martial arts integrates acrobatics and gymnastics coordinated with dance and music, which appeals to many of our female students.”
Since music lyrics are in Portuguese, children also get a taste of the language and culture of Brazil, he adds. The school is open to children 3 years and older.
“We take what kids like to do anyway – run, kick and do cartwheels – and integrate those activities into the other movements of Capoeira,” Sparrow says.
In a world with increasing ethnic diversity, many parents want to equip their children to speak more than one language. Teaching a second language to students in their younger years will help them acquire it successfully, according to Pat Cenoz, director of English and foreign language programs for the International Language Center at San Antonio.
“Most experts agree that the earlier a child is introduced to a second language, the greater the chances are that the child will become truly proficient in the language,” Cenoz says.
Other benefits of early language instruction, she says, could include improved school performance, better listening skills, exposure to other cultures, and as adults, a competitive edge in the workforce.
The International Language Center offers classes for children ages 6 to 18 to fit their Spanish levels. The “Beginning Spanish” course is tailored to help students communicate in everyday situations. The “Improve Your Spanish” program is intended for children who may hear Spanish at home but who need to develop their bilingual skills, and the “Advanced Spanish” course is designed for children who are bilingual in English and Spanish.
While some kids thrive in the spoken and written word, others prefer the language of music which uniquely stimulates the brain, says Anita Goldberg, owner and instructor of Music Masters.
“Music helps children emotionally and cognitively and boosts their creativity, concentration and coordination,” she says. “It’s also a great outlet for them to express themselves.”
Goldberg instructs children ranging from 2 years old to those in second grade. They perform using percussion instruments, drums, xylophone, piano, keyboard, recorder, and their voices. She also teaches the fundamentals of music theory in a “child-oriented, fun way,” that uses creative movement and rhythm exercises, she says.
“My goal is to teach children the love of music, but I also give them the foundations of music theory, so they can be very successful if they continue in the field,” she says.
Another music-focused activity – dancing – can do wonders for children’s school performance, says Deborah Pamplin, owner and instructor of Dance Plus San Antonio.
“Their memory retention is better because they have to remember dance steps, and that helps them to remember other information faster,” she says. “For most of my students, their grades improve since they have to be self-disciplined in order to keep their grades up and be able to dance.”
Dance Plus instructs students as young as 2 ½ years old in ballet, tap and jazz. Besides providing a great source of exercise, dancing helps children gain confidence in school, Pamplin says.
“When they get used to performing in front of people, they find it easier to speak up in class,” she says.
Selecting a Program
When choosing any school for enrichment programs, Pamplin suggests that parents ask if their child can participate in a free introductory class.
“During the trial class, parents should see how the staff interacts with their children,” she says. “Once enrolled, it’s a good idea for parents to observe on occasion, as opposed to every week, so they can see the progress of their child.”
Questions to ask during a tour of an enrichment school include: How many years of experience do the instructors have? What is the teacher to student ratio? Are make-up classes offered, and is there a charge for them? Are discounts available for military personnel, grandparents or families with more than one enrolled child?
“I encourage parents to shop around and compare schools,” Pamplin says. “Their child may be only able to handle one activity a week, but if their grades are good and they do their chores, they may be ready for another.”
Lisa Taylor is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and the mother of three daughters.