Getting hooked on sports at a young age can have immediate and lifelong benefits, like boosting self-confidence, building a healthy body, fostering friendships and learning how to lose with dignity. (Or at least without throwing things.) If your kiddo hasn’t shown much interest in balls, bathing suits or being part of a team, the Bay Area has an abundance of alternatives to the usual youth sports fare. One of them might even lead to a scholarship someday. (But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

trapeze_girl_circus_centerPhoto: Circus Center

Aerial sports: For your very own Peter Pan

Remember the look on your little one’s face after they took that first successful step? A heady mix of amazement, joy and pride (likely mirrored on your own face). Eventually the novelty wears off, because, well, it’s just walking. Maybe it’s time they learned to fly—under the watchful eye of skilled instructors and with harnesses, nets and well-padded floors, of course. In addition to some awe-inspiring tricks, classes in trapeze, trampoline and other aerial sports develop coordination, strength, discipline, grace and an appreciation for taking risks. They’ll be amazed anew at what their bodies (and minds) can do. And so will you!

If you live in San Francisco, chances are you’ve been invited to an AcroSports birthday party. But there’s much more on offer than ziplines and cupcakes at this Inner Sunset gem. Aspiring aerialists can sign up for after-school classes in tumbling & trampoline (5+), static trapeze (7+) and aerial rope (7+). Organic coffee, snacks and wifi await in the on-site cafe for caregivers remaining on terra firma. Bonus for new students: Enter “no-risk trial” in the customer comment box at registration, and pay only after you complete your first class.

639 Frederick St.
San Francisco, Ca

Circus Center
Far from your standard-issue big tent, the impressive Art Deco facade of the old Poly High boys’ gym houses San Francisco’s Circus Center (AcroSports is in the former girls’ gym a few doors down). This nonprofit school has been training kids and adults in the circus arts for 30 years. Single-session flying trapeze classes are offered for all levels, ages 7+. The Saturday morning Little Big Top class (currently in session) for ages 6 and up introduces the fundamentals, including trapeze, acrobatics, juggling and tightwire. Registration is now open for weeklong spring and summer camps, too.

755 Frederick St.
San Francisco, Ca

House of Air
When this trampoline park opened at Crissy Field in 2011, Bay Area parents of high-energy tots breathed a collective sigh of a relief. And quickly booked those two-hour sessions. Free play on the tramp is a blast, but for high flyers ready to add some flips and tricks, House of Air offers classes in their training ground for ages 7 and up. Little kids can join in the fun, too, with the Mini Program (ages 2 to 6), which focuses on beginning gymnastic and athletic skills with age-appropriate games. Dates for their popular weeklong summer camps (ages 7-12) are coming soon.

926 (Old) Mason Street in The Presidio
San Francisco, Ca

Athletic Playground
“Come ready to play” is all they ask at this inviting and inspiring circus-slash-gym in Emeryville. Which is pretty much a natural state for kids, right? They offer single-session after-school aerial and acrobatics classes on the trapeze, aerial tissue (think Cirque du Soleil), and ropes. Check out the limited-time introductory special: A week of kids’ classes for $30. Sign up online for current classes or their Monkey Ninja drop-in summer camps.

4770 San Pablo Ave., Unit E
Emeryville, Ca

Trapeze Arts
Ages 5 and up can learn how to fly through the air with the greatest of ease at Oakland’s full-time circus school. The General Circus Skills classes (ages 3 to 11) are divided by age group and introduce kids to a full range of circus arts, including static trapeze (for climbing and posing), acrobatics and trampoline (plus, older kids can clown around with artistic bicycle). Students show off their newly honed skills in a performance the last week of each session.

1822 9th St.
Oakland, CA

Cirque San Jose
This South Bay performance troupe offers weekly circus arts classes and summer camps for ages 5 to 18. Classes are held in West San Jose at the CPAA Center, and sample everything under the big top, like acrobatics, floor gymnastics, plate-spinning, diabolo, globe-walking, poi spinning, juggling, aerial silks/aerial yoga, and ropes.

6148 Bollinger Road
San Jose, CA

Photo: Academy of Fencing Masters

Fencing: For the kid who likes chess, swordplay’s the thing

Want a sport that gives the mind and body an equally challenging workout? Head to the nearest salle d’armes (fencing club). Fencing is often called “physical chess” because it requires focus, creativity and analytical thinking. It’s also physically demanding, as the duelers are in constant motion, moving forward and back along a 14-meter piste (fencing strip). What’s the appeal for kids? Did we mention they’ll be fighting with swords? Yes, it’s a combat sport, but it boasts one of the lowest injury rates of any sport, thanks to a strict code of conduct and some serious protective gear. The Bay Area has dozens of clubs catering to both newbies and competitive fencers with Olympic-sized goals. Clubs provide beginners with everything they need to try out the sport, so no investment in gear is required until your kid gets hooked. Check out The Bay Cup fencing site for a complete list.

Halberstadt Fencers’ Club
This historic fencing club in the heart of the Mission has been around since 1942, producing Olympic fencers and inspiring a lifelong devotion to the sport in those with dreams a little less grand. Programs for juniors start as young as 6, for all three fencing weapons: Foil, epee and saber.

621 S. Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, Ca

West Berkeley Fencing Club
Housed in the old Freight & Salvage coffee shop, this club is relatively new on the scene, but its founders and coaches have a deep history with the sport and some serious pedigree. The space is not your typical fencing gym, featuring compressed bamboo flooring, a separate stretching room, a comfortable lounge, and showers (a rarity). Classes for youth start at age 8, and summer camps are available for ages 7 to 12, with all equipment provided.

1111 Addison St.
Berkeley, Ca

Marin Fencing Academy
One of the more spacious clubs in the area (the facility also houses an art gallery), the Marin Fencing Academy welcomes fencers of all ages and abilities. Youth class are held every weekday afternoon plus Saturdays, so it’s easy to fit classes into your family calendar. Bonus: the first lesson is free! After that, choose from different levels of memberships that include unlimited classes and private lessons.

827 Fourth Street
San Rafael, CA

Academy of Fencing Masters
The founders (parents of fencers themselves) of this fencing club in downtown Campbell built their program with family in mind. The 6,000-ft facility includes a parent lounge overlooking the training floor, a play area for siblings too young to fence, and even a study space. Respected in the community, the coaches have a reputation of working especially well with kids. Check out the free, downloadable parents’ guide to fencing on their site for a great overview of the sport.

86 Railway Ave.
Campbell, CA

Peninsula Fencing Academy
Positivity is king at this San Carlos-based club. The coaches adhere to the rules of “positive coaching,” which focuses as much on the development of the person as the athlete. The youth classes (ages 5 to 12) are grouped by experience, starting with the absolute beginners to those that are ready to compete. If your kid is a Star Wars fan, keep your eye out for their next “light saber training camp.”

835B E San Carlos Ave.
San Carlos, CA


Rock climbing: For the kid who’s ready to conquer new heights

Has your little monkey scaled every vertical surface in your home? Maybe they’re ready for the challenge of indoor rock climbing. The controlled environment of a climbing gym offers the same thrill, minus the risk of an unprotected spill. While your kid might not be free-climbing El Capitan anytime soon, they’ll feel no less heroic the first time they make it to the top of a rock wall. Along the way, they’ll build muscle, stamina, and the confidence to take on other challenges. While they’re learning the ropes, check out the fitness and yoga classes on offer. Or if you’re ready to shake up your own routine, make this exciting sport a family affair.

Planet Granite
Is your charge bored with their current after-school program? Planet Granite’s kiddie camps will have them literally climbing the walls. These 5-week programs for ages 5 to 13 teach safety and climbing skills, in a fun format. Experienced climbers age 8 and up are invited to join the Planet Granite Climbing Team. Choose from three locations: the Presidio, with its fantastic Bay views; the community-oriented location in the restored Belmont Theatre; or Sunnyvale, with its additional outdoor bouldering area.

924 (Old) Mason Street in The Presidio
San Francisco Ca

100 El Camino Real
Belmont Ca

815 Stewart Dr.
Sunnyvale Ca

Bridges Rock Gym
Bridges specializes in bouldering (climbing without ropes or harnesses on low walls, with a cushy pad to catch falls), but the kids area features rope climbing and the popular slackline (similar to a tightrope; great for working on balance). The after-school program for ages 5 to 12 teaches the basics in safety and technique, rope climbing, bouldering and slacklining. Includes shoe rental. There’s a Teen Team (ages 10 to 18) for those looking to push their skills higher.

5635 San Diego St.
El Cerrito, Ca

Touchstone Climbing
San Francisco’s first climbing gym, Mission Cliffs opened in 1995 in (you guessed it) the Mission district with its jaw-dropping five-story main wall. The parent company has since expanded to six locations in the Bay Area, and kids are welcome at all. Their 10-week after-school camps focus on setting and achieving goals, while kids learn essential climbing techniques, knot craft and rappelling. Weekly camps are offered throughout the summer; check the individual sites for upcoming dates.

Mission Cliffs
2295 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA

Dogpatch Boulders
2573 3rd St.
San Francisco, CA

Berkely Ironworks
800 Potter St.
Berkeley, CA

Great Western Power Co.
520 20th St.
Oakland, CA

Diablo Rock Gym
1220 Diamond Way, Ste. 140
Concord, CA

Studio Climbing
396 S. First St.
San Jose, CA

Does your little athlete have a favorite alternative sport?

—Sarah Ordody