Nine fun places for kids’ — in-person! — group classes around Santa Cruz County

Who is ready to let the kids out and into summer classes? Parenting columnist Liza Monroy has tracked down the best of what we know is out there, with key info to aid your planning.

Editor’s note: With this introductory piece, we’re glad to announce Lookout contributor Liza Monroy as our new parenting columnist. Her Lookout work has already ranged widely from sexism in surfing, co-written with Mark Conley, to vegan cookery to exploring the pleasures of the Westside, our first Area Guide. Please welcome her and send parenting questions (and tips!) to her at at liza@lookoutlocal.com.

Parenting columnist Liza Monroy

Before the pandemic, I used to worry about overscheduling my kids, and yet I did it anyway.

Could they take swimming, ballet and gymnastics as requested? Were too many of their extracurriculars sports-related, and did they need to balance it out with some art, music or STEM? There were so many options it could be overwhelming. What if I scheduled my child for martial arts but she would have excelled at acting, and I’d never know because she was only 5, and I was calling the shots.

The pandemic changed everything, including my mindset. Suddenly there were no group classes or enriching extracurriculars — or they’d been moved to Zoom, which my then-2- and 5-year-old not only didn’t tolerate, but would often run screaming from, even if it was Grandma or their beloved preschool teacher on the screen.

After two years of restrictions, uncertainty, on-and-off Zoom, outdoors and indoors, masked and unmasked, group classes are back. And yet it can be hard to remember exactly what we did before. Have the kids outgrown their former activities or should they return to past routines? It could be a good time to try something new.

Since many of our favorite small and locally owned businesses didn’t receive bailouts, I’ve been checking into what survived locally and is still out there for our kids to go back to and what new options have sprung up. Many parents I’ve spoken with are looking to re-explore group learning now that COVID restrictions are lifted and the pandemic seems to be (fingers crossed) less of an incessant threat. These nine local organizations, from North County to Mid-County to South County, offer fun and fulfilling group classes for kids from the youngest crawling babies through the high school years. And after leaving life as a personal kid-Uber in the “before times,” I’ve realized that one outside-of-school class at a time is plenty. No overscheduling required.

Art Factory, Aptos

Founder, director and art instructor Yvette Contois had the vision for Art Factory, which opened in Aptos in 2009, as a noncompetitive, uplifting environment for discovering the joy of art-making. With in-person classes and camps now exclusively outdoors, pandemic safety is prioritized. “I am still taking a cautious approach regarding the health and safety of the Art Factory community,” says Contois, who has over three decades of experience teaching and practicing art. “We continue to operate with small class sizes.”

Some classes are still open for enrollment and new ones are being added, with Zoom allowing quite some distance participation: “We have students from New York City to Spain and lots of places in between.” As Art Factory enters its 13th year of summer art camp, Contois says each week centers on a new theme: “Modern Art Masters, Nature Journaling, Drawing People, ‘Cats, Cats, Cats!’ — an Art Factory original and kid favorite — and more. Many weekly students from the school year attend our camps and it is also a favorite of students who return to the area for summer vacation.” Click here for current offerings, plus information on pricing, camps and private lessons.

Batata BJJ Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Westside Santa Cruz

Jiu-jitsu teaches self-defense, coordination, confidence, teamwork, communication and interaction. Head instructor and co-founder Julio Echeverria leads the kids’ classes, which are divided into age groups 4-9 and 10-14, with an encouraging approach that keeps the environment dynamic as they develop technique and skill. Each class has a warm-up, partner training with an instructor supervising and directing each pair, and game time and the end. Echeverria, a fourth-degree black belt who has trained and competed internationally for over 15 years, says that while there’s currently space, classes are now filling up fast; during the pandemic, training had moved online.

“We kept working hard” through the pandemic, he says. “After reopening, we just made sure everyone was healthy while attending class.” Now, “people are coming back since the restrictions have been lifted. Everyone is getting more comfortable in going back to doing things.” Echeverria praises the kids’ high energy and willingness to learn. After a recent class, one excited first grader listed her favorite things about jiu-jitsu: “You get to wear a gi (martial arts uniform) and get stripes on your belt and the wrestling is super-fun!” You can stop by for a free trial class, no reservation needed, Echeverria says; find details here on pricing, class times and more.

Bilingual Baby Laptime, Watsonville

For newborns through 2-year-olds in Watsonville libraries, Bilingual Baby Laptime exposes the youngest children to early literacy and social skills with 34 minutes of storybooks, songs, music and other play-based activities. It returned in person as of February and is offered at no cost. “We read two books and sing songs and rhymes in English and Spanish,” says librarian MariaElena Olmedo, who leads Bilingual Baby at both the Main Street and Freedom Boulevard branches. “Play time is incorporated into the program with opportunities for babies to play and interact.” No registration is required to attend. The program runs throughout the year at both branches. “Seeing and hearing babies’ laughter is very rewarding,” Olmedo says. “Everyone has fun.” Between 10-20 families are typically in attendance and the libraries are fully reopened. It’s requested that unvaccinated attendees wear masks. Find more information here.

JuneBug’s Gym, Pleasure Point

This friendly kids gymnastics studio that’s a staple on the Eastside survived pandemic closures, thankfully, and is open again. Several levels of gymnastics classes are offered in addition to open gym time for drop-offs (with reservations), parent-participation classes and “parents’ night out” gymnastics parties. Open gym is for walking toddlers through age 9, with “Inchworm” time twice a week for crawling babies and early walkers. Get details here on classes, schedules and pricing.

Kids’ Zumba at Toadal Fitness, Live Oak

On Saturday mornings, parents can drop off or join their kids (ages 3–9) for a 30-minute class that feels like a dance party; styles including hip-hop, reggaeton, cumbia and more. Teaching coordination and multicultural awareness, Zumba features easy-to-follow choreography and movement set to energetic, catchy songs. Accomplished dancer and teacher Marisa Jansen brings great energy for parents and kids alike. Her two children, ages 7 and 8, help out with teaching, too.

“Toadal restarted the class in June of last year,” Jansen says. “We have an average of five to seven kids, but there have been up to 15, the class limit.” Jansen encourages parents to sign up ahead of time on the Toadal Fitness app but adds, “So far there has been plenty of space — for drop-ins, too.” More information here.

Musical Me, various parks

When my younger child was 8 months old and the older one was 4, there weren’t many overlapping classes they could do together since they were in vastly different developmental stages. I was very excited to find “Canta y Baila Conmigo,” the Spanish-language installment of Musical Me and its popular Music Together courses, building blocks for rhythm and song. (We took the class pre-pandemic.) My then-4-year-old came away knowing a little bit of Spanish and with a love of instruments, while the baby delighted at the sound and movement time, plus absorbed a penchant for song that continues today. Now, the company offers Music Together Outside in parks around Santa Cruz as well as a continuing online program. Get details on locations, schedule, pricing and more here.

All About Theatre, downtown Santa Cruz

The all-ages theater group was missed during the pandemic, then pivoted to online and outdoor formats for classes, rehearsals and shows. Summer courses are back and in person for ages 3–16, including “Encanto Camp” (let’s get talking about that Bruno!) to reenact dances, songs and scenes from the popular Disney film, with a performance at the end; improv; a teen version of “Newsies,” based on the film and musical; circus arts; and story acting. See upcoming classes, productions, schedule and pricing here.

Raizes do Brasil Capoeira Santa Cruz, Westside Santa Cruz

Offering classes for students ages 4-18, the Westside’s Raizes do Brasil, Santa Cruz’s only capoeira academy, teaches the Brazilian multi-hyphenate art of movement, music, martial arts, Portuguese language and Brazilian culture. Kids learn teamwork as they “play” together in the roda (circle), performing a variety of kicks, dodges and soft acrobatics, and trade off the variety of instruments: pandeiro (tambourine), atabaque (drum), and, for more advanced students, the berimbau.

Studio manager Melanie Godinho says parents and kids have been excited to get back to class after pandemic restrictions were lifted. “We still have some kids who wear masks,” she says, though it’s now optional. Fifteen to 20 kids have been in regular attendance and offerings are expanding. “We are getting ready to add an advanced kids class soon.” Get details here on schedule, pricing, membership and more.

Seven Directions Institute of Art & Science, downtown Santa Cruz

At this institute in the Old Sash Mill, art and science intersect in after-school and home-school programs and camps. Students can do anything from drawing live animals from the studio to anime, cartooning, claymation, and evening LGBTQ+ teen hangouts. With STEM-oriented classes like “Let’s Build It! STEM Engineering for Kids,” the links between science and art are on full display. There are programs for every age, interest and style. Schedule, class descriptions, and registration here.

Lookout contributor Liza Monroy is a local author and essayist whose books include the collection “Seeing as Your Shoes Are Soon to Be on Fire” (Soft Skull), “The Marriage Act,” and the novel “Mexican High.” She has written about relationships, parenting, travel and more for outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post, and O magazine, and has taught writing at UC Santa Cruz and Columbia University.



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