The Ninja Zone is a venue where youth come ready to explore fun, release energy and build confidence. Boys and girls are eager to run, jump and flip on mats, wearing cool black headbands and they are empowered to take on the world.
Farmington Community Education is now teaching the new and popular Ninja weekly classes and day camps. The classes are for youth from 18 months to 14-years-old who want to learn how to become a Ninja in body and spirit. Krystal Wallerich, director of gymnastics programs in Farmington, trains coaches to instruct weekly classes and day camps offered in the spring, summer and upcoming sessions during MEA week in October and winter break.
Ninja Zone classes are taught where gymnastics courses are taught in Farmington School District 192, inside the Instructional Services Center in downtown Farmington. Currently, the district does not offer a boys' gymnastics program because there is not enough room in the gym space for the boys' competitive equipment, Wallerich said.
"This gives boys something to do, and we saw a bunch of brothers in the stands while their sisters were practicing gymnastics, and I thought let's give them something to do," she said.
Ninja Zone, an accredited Ninja program, offers coaches training in the program that can become an inspiration for kids. The program lessons attests to build boys' and girls' self-confidence, discipline, impulse control, responsibility and instinctual safety.
"I like that it gives kids a different option than gymnastics because gymnastics is very precise - we want them to point their toes, we want them to keep their legs straight," Wallerich said. "Ninja incorporates gymnastics but they don't have to have tight legs and pointed toes.
"Their goal is to move through their environment as quickly and efficiently as possible, so it incorporates free running, parkour-like martial arts and flipping and using things that are already in your way."
When they turn 6 years old, a child can enter the Ninja training program and train to wear white, yellow, green or blue headbands. Once a Ninja reaches the blue and green levels, there are competitive programs throughout Minnesota where they can compete in obstacle courses.
"Today, nearly 80 percent of the kids enrolled are boys, but our program has girls and it is continuous movement with kicking and punching involved that mimic some martial arts moves, and it is all in combination with gymnastics moves," said Wallerich.
Babies as young as 18 months old can take Baby Ninja courses where a parent accompanies the toddlers until they reach three years old.
"They can climb and use gross motors skills and lot of things that kids are missing these days because they are not outside running and jumping as much as they used to," she said.
Youth from Rosemount head down to Farmington to take Ninja courses and the program has even filled a demand outside the community with families traveling from Lakeville and Apple Valley.
"I think it is going to grow throughout Minnesota and continue because it is so great for these kids to get out and do anything," Wallerich said. "Our little Ninjas is our biggest program and it is for 3-to-5 year-olds and there are not a lot of sports offerings for those type of kids, and really Ninja is good for whatever sport they are going to do later because of the balance, the agility and the endurance."
Camryn Isaac, a Ninja coach, loves teaching the Ninja program in classes that run 45-55 minutes.
"I really like it because I am running around and I really like it better than coaching gymnastics because the kids can do it multiple times, run around and then they are ready to do something else," she said.
Josh Heeren, 8, of Farmington smiles wide when he talks about taking Ninja classes. He likes the running, jumping and building skills like a Ninja. He has been a student since spring break when he took an all-day camp.
"My favorite part was when I used orange and black foam blocks to build a tower and then we could throw them," Heeren said.
His sister, Anna Heeren, 6, takes weekly Ninja classes after his classes are over. She likes doing flips and trying out tricks on the tall bar. She also took a gymnastics session and plans to take dance to see if she likes that artistic sport.
Ninja Zone compliments athletic skills youth learn in swimming, baseball, soccer, and flag football, according to their father, Jon Heeren, who coaches wrestling and football at Farmington High School.
"I like that this is not your traditional kids sport and it is not soccer or baseball and it is a little off the beaten path, and how most kids who do gymnastics and dance, this is a compliment to that," Heeren said. "My kids are huge fans of the Ninja Warrior show and this is kind of a different way of moving and helps them while they are figuring out their bodies in a different way than gymnastics.
"It gives them the chance to do things in a scaled-down version of what they see on TV with blocks like they see on TV, and they have to jump back and forth and it gets them moving and they can develop some good movement."
"I am kind of the mindset that kids should try everything," Heeren added.
Compared to character-education lessons taught in martial arts, youth learn a creed and repeat verses each week. Lessons foster skills about kindness and how to respect authority. The lessons aid youth to learn how to win humbly and lose with integrity while respecting the other team.
"We try to get them to go home and practice whatever that character trait is at home and come back the next week and tell us about it," Wallerich said.
Heeren said the Ninja creed is beneficial because it builds children's ability to think about respect and serves as character education for his children.
"The earlier you can get them to think about a message and a code of conduct or an ethos about how to live your life, even if it is a simple message on how to live your life and having a work ethic and a sense of responsibility," Heeren said. "There are a programs that teach that and this is a different voice coming from a different area, and if you can get the message from different avenues, it tends to stick. As parents, we get ignored, as teachers we get ignored, and as church leaders or pastors we get ignored, but if they hear it enough times then eventually they quit ignoring it."
Youth can begin to embody values taught at home, school, church and from character education lessons taught with sports like the Ninja Zone.