Natalie Yam whacks the Wiffle ball-style ball with her paddle and sends it soaring too far, out of the lines of the pickleball court. “Don’t hit it as hard as last time,” advises instructor Michael Kazin when opponent Leyla Pereira sends the ball back over the net. This time, Natalie lands it inside the court.
Natalie and Leyla aren’t two recent retirees learning the sport that originally exploded in popularity among an older crowd — they are 7-year-old girls at Pierce Country Day Camp in Roslyn. Usually, it’s the trends of the youth that then spread to the older demographic — case in point: Facebook. But with pickleball, it’s the baby boomers who have launched a phenomenon that is now spreading to the youngest among us.
“For the longest time, it’s had the stereotype of being an elderly sport played in Florida,” says Kazin, 44. “Now we’re bringing it to the younger kids … I think because people realize how much fun it is.”
Pierce, for instance, added pickleball last summer to its roster of sports, and it was popular enough that the camp offered it again this year. EDspectation Learning Center in West Hempstead added a program this summer, with kids ages 3 to 11 playing weekly at Pickleball Plus in West Hempstead. Franklin Square PAL has added pickleball to its youth sports offerings, says office manager Christina McGrath.
Two dozen school districts on Long Island reported that they offer pickleball as part of their physical education program, many in high schools and some even in middle school and younger. “It’s trickled down to the elementary schools now,” says Tricia Livingston, physical education and health chairperson for the Bayport-Blue Point School District, which she says introduced a pilot program in one elementary school last year and is expanding to all three elementary schools this coming school year.
PICKLEBALL ‘PROMOTES HEALTHY LIVING’
The game is spreading beyond camps and gym classes on Long Island. The Town of Hempstead is offering a new clinic for town kids ages 7 to 12 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sept. 24 and Oct. 15 at town parks, says Hempstead town supervisor Don Clavin. Cost is $6 and preregistration is required. Pickleball Plus is launching a children’s league for the first time at its indoor facility starting on Sept. 19 that will be divided into age groups and run for 10 weeks, costing between $200 and $250 per child depending on age, says Dory Levinter, manager/director of junior development. Pickle N Par plans to run children's leagues when it opens its second location in Nesconset in November, says Melville location manager Andrew Ritter.
And Pickeball Hall, a new indoor facility slated to open in Sayville in late fall, plans to offer after school programs, as well as clinics and private lessons, says co-founder Dan Greenberg. “This is a sport that’s accessible to everybody, and it promotes healthy living. It’s growing exponentially,” Greenberg says.
Ocean Blaize, 12, of Albertson, started playing about six weeks ago. “It’s a very social sport. You meet a lot of people playing it. After the game is done, you touch paddles for good sportsmanship,” she says.
The game, often described as a combination of Ping-Pong and tennis, is something that children can learn quickly because it doesn’t have complex rules, and it is a sport that doesn’t take an enormous amount of athletic prowess to excel at, coaches and educators say. It also doesn’t require an investment in expensive equipment. All kids need is the lightweight wood paddle, which is smaller than a tennis racket; plastic pickleballs, which resemble Wiffle balls and come in a variety of colors; and a court, which is smaller than a tennis court but can be played on one by adding the lines using chalk or paint.
“Almost all of my students can do it,” says Ian Kanarvogel, an elementary school physical education/health teacher in the Oysterponds School District. He says his students like the game so much, that they ask him to leave the nets up in the gym during recess and lunch so they can play more.
“We look to incorporate sports students can do for the rest of their lives,” says Tim Mullins, director of physical education, health and athletics for the Bayport-Blue Point district. “Obviously, pickleball is an up and coming sport … and the kids absolutely love it.”
A SOCIAL ACTIVITY, TOO
Even kids who don’t lean toward athletics like to play, says Dory Levinter, manager/director of junior development for Pickleball Plus. “My daughter is in the theater program and my son is interested in science and coding,” she says of her two teenagers, who started playing during the pandemic because it was something fun that they could do with their grandparents when people had to stay far apart, Levinter says.
Several young players confirmed that they enjoy pickleball.
Alessia Bacarella, 7, of Whitestone, Queens, learned to play this summer at Pierce. “My favorite part is when you hit the ball.” That’s easier said than done, says her fellow camper Maia Eguren, 7, of Forest Hills, Queens. “You get it over your head, and you can’t hit is because you’re not tall enough,” she laments.
Franz Gerdes, 35, of Bellmore, who works for an electric vehicle manufacturer, says his son Adien, 8, who played through EDspectation Learning Center in West Hempstead, likes that the sport is something different. “And he liked the name pickleball, he thought it was funny,” Gerdes says. (Different stories exist to explain the name, one of which suggests it was named after one of the founders’ dog.)
“It was very exciting for me and the other kids, too,” says Nylah Waite, 11, of Cambria Heights, Queens, who also played through EDspectation. “It wasn’t hard. I think I was really good at it.”