Little Kickers program teaches more than just soccer: “My heart is warmed watching these kids develop”

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GLENDALE -- They're little, they're energetic and they're becoming athletes!

"My son is incredibly energetic," Nicole Smeby said.

"I thought it was going to be lots of kids chasing a soccer ball down the field for 45 minutes," Courtney Payne said.

"I didn't know what to expect," Connie Lovelace said.

In the Little Kickers program at InBounds Soccer in Glendale, there are definitely expectations for the kids, ranging from 18 months to nine years old.

Little Kickers

"In each class we have a goal. We have an emotional target, a physical target, a cognitive target and we really kind of mold them throughout the class," Jake Conrad said.

Conrad, the program's coordinator, said he understands that some parents might think soccer is the sole focus, but there's a bigger picture here.

Little Kickers

"Little Kickers is a child development program that uses soccer as our vehicle to help kids explore themselves and grow, and we meet them where they're at -- so we don't want to push kids out of their comfort zone. We want to allow them to play with their imagination, tell funny stories, explore jokes, and that's kind of the best part about it. That's really the name of the game here," Conrad said.

It has really caught on with Courtney Payne's son. They make a weekly trip to Glendale from Mount Pleasant.

Little Kickers

"I see the enjoyment in his face each week, his interaction with his coaches, his teammates, and then these folks here at InBounds are really great motivators as well. They're a great support system. The activities are really rooted, I see now, in development theories, so he's working on his listening skills, large motor skills. He's following directions, so it's just, you know, it's a curriculum, and that I wasn't expecting," Payne said.

It has also benefited Nicole Smeby and her four-year-old son.

Little Kickers

"The biggest thing is his listening has improved tenfold. Now, he listens to other adults besides just Mommy. I see that he plays a little bit better with his sister too, which has been great because now he's learning to interact with other kids. It transfers back home with his sister," Smeby said.

It also transferred to another student -- a teammate in his class.

Little Kickers

"He has a really great friend that he loves to play with, and I play well with the mom, so it works out for everybody," Smeby said.

That other mom is Connie Lovelace, who, along with her daughter, said they're exited to go to soccer each week.

"That's so important at this age too, to have that special friend to look forward to, especially because my daughter's an only child. This special friend is really important to her, so it's really great," Lovelace said.

While friendships are formed through soccer, so are relationships with the program's coaches, who work closely with each child.

Little Kickers

"It's just so heartwarming every single day and kids learn your name. I mean, at the end of the day, they're working for stamps. We give them stamps at the end of the day. It's like the greatest gift you could ever give them. We're all a part of the village that's taking these kids and meeting them where they're at and letting them explore and supporting them through it, so I think it's a win-win for everybody," Conrad said.

Most of those wins don't come with the ball ending up in the net, but instead, they come with smiles from children and parents alike.

Little Kickers

"To see him bonding with other kids -- just to see other kids say 'hey Nolan, let's play,' grabbing hands, hugging, having a really good time together. Melts my heart a little," Smeby said.

"He's always been a bright kid, but I could just really see his vocabulary blossom and to see his listening skills blossom. You know, I owe these folks at Little Kickers to his listening skills at home and his attention span at home," Payne said.

"I think just watching that growth. I just have moments where I literally go home and just, like, my heart is warmed by watching these kids develop," Conrad said.

As the kids progress through the program, soccer does become more of the focus.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the Little Kickers program.