Young Curran Hutton is having the time of his life as his tennis instructor takes the class on a make-believe trip around the globe.
The 3-year-old from Deer Park doesn't realize it, but hitting balls over the makeshift Great Wall of China is helping to develop proper technique and motor skills. And going to Australia to catch baby kangaroos in his customized mini racket proves to be a lesson in practicing numbers.
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New sessions start Nov. 13A new 10-week session of Tennis Explorers begins Nov. 13 at all Midtown Athletic Club locations. Each location offers multiple class times. For more information, visit midtown.com or call the following numbers:
Ÿ Bannockburn, 2211 Waukegan Road: (847) 945-1818
Ÿ Palatine, 1760 N. Hicks Road: (847) 991-4646
Ÿ Willowbrook, 215 W. 63rd St.: (630) 325-8888
Ÿ Chicago, 2020 W. Fullerton Ave.: (773) 235-2300
Curran's one of the nearly 200 kids ages 3 and 4 who are taking part Tennis Explorers, a new instructional program at Midtown Athletic Club's four Chicago-area locations including Palatine, Bannockburn and Willowbrook.
"This is more about overall education using tennis as a medium," said Anish Manrai, director of tennis at Midtown in Palatine. "Everything is packaged in a very creative and imaginative approach to the sport."
When Midtown began developing the program 18 months ago, organizers knew they wanted to accomplish more than simply instill fundamental tennis skills. So they worked in collaboration with childhood development professionals to create a curriculum that incorporates early literacy, numeracy, health and social development.
Each of the 10 weekly, 45-minute classes takes a trip to a different country and starts by teaching "hello" in that language. Students get a passport and fill it with stickers as they go. Parents are encouraged to participate during each class -- sometimes the kids need help refocusing -- and after by going over storybook activity sheets that recall colors, letters, shapes and rhymes.
Johanna Croll of Barrington, an avid tennis player herself, jumped at the opportunity to sign up her daughter, Courtney.
"It's really not appropriate to have a 3-year-old just hit ball after ball," Croll said. "She sees my love for tennis and wants to play too, so this is a way for her to play and for us to be together."
Midtown spokesman Dave Silbar said the club worked with Chicago-based Wilson to design a colorful mini backpack and age-appropriate tennis racket specifically for Tennis Explorers. Participants also get a shirt.
"Courtney thinks it's the coolest thing that there's a racket that's small enough for her to hold and play with," Croll said.
Manrai and Midtown hope that the preschool-age program will make the U.S. a tennis powerhouse once again.
"We're behind Europe right now, and it's programs like these that can put us back on the forefront," Manrai said. "But this isn't us talking about forehands, backhands and volleys; it's like an adventure."
The cost of the Tennis Explorers program varies from club to club, but costs about $200 for members and $245 for nonmembers.
For more information, call the Palatine club at (847) 991-4646, the Bannockburn club at (847) 945-1818 or visit midtown.com.