Haddonfield Business Owner Teaches Character to Kids
Jen Baker Leonard invites Patch to her company Little Sport, and talks about how she's teaching children as young as two years old to "Give 7" through sport and play.
It is sometime in the 1970s. A Cherry Hill dad sits his four young daughters down on the couch. He says, “I need to show you girls something,” and leaves the room. When he returns, his hand is outstretched before them and for a moment, his eyes rest on each little girl’s face.
“Hi, I’m Bish Baker. Nice to meet you,” he says as he confidently shakes each little hand and looks each child in the eyes.
That’s how Haddonfield business owner and mother of five, Jen Baker Leonard, recalls her first experience with what she calls a “Give 7” philosophy. Leonard says that a person “Gives 7,” when she extends a firm five-finger handshake and two eyes of eye contact to another person.
Leonard is the founder and chief executive officer of Little Sport, a sports and play center located in Maple Shade, New Jersey. Little Sport serves children 6 years old and under with the mission: “Developing healthy, joyful, respectful children ... One PLAY at a time!”
What makes Leonard’s business unique from other play places is her inclusion of respectful behaviors like “Give 7” and the story of how she started out.
Leonard says she doesn’t see a reason why not to teach children to "Give 7" at a young age.
“They are never too young,” she says. “Why wait? Why does every kid ‘high five?’ Because of the positive reinforcement that goes with it. People ‘high five’ back.
“If you teach them young,” Leonard adds, “you don’t get the eye-roll you may get when kids are older.”
Leonard, who has a bachelor of arts degree from Boston College in communications and psychology, has interviewed high school coaches about the qualities of kids that make a lasting impression. As a high school and college athlete herself, Leonard believes there is a definite connection between young athletes who are respectful, who “Give 7,” and success.
“I meet way more kids who don’t 'Give 7.' Most coaches will say they remember one or two kids over a decade or two because of how they acted,” Leonard says. She believes a firm handshake, eye-contact and a spoken greeting are part of that.
Leonard asserts that “the core stuff” that differentiates her programs from the rest. From as early as six months, Little Sport participants learn to use sign language and high-fives as a way to express themselves.
“All of my coaches teach and use sign language,” said Leonard. “We use signing for ‘more,’ ‘all done,’ ‘please,’ thank you’ and ‘help.’ Why not teach a child to sign what they need until they have the words to ask?”
Leonard invested in Little Sport as her first marriage was coming to an end. At the time, she had twin 21-month-old sons, and an infant.
She recalls, “I knew I might soon be on my own to support my three boys. I needed $80,000 for the business, I had no credit and no house.”
Old and new friends came out of the woodwork to help Leonard, mailing checks and contributing to her plan to create Little Sport with logo designs, sponsorship and consults.
“My family’s core value to live a healthy, good life was really important at that time. My parents, Bishop and Sandra Baker, have been married for 42 years. I really believe when you stick to your core beliefs you will succeed,” reflects Leonard.
She is now married to husband Sean Leonard of Haddonfield. In addition to raising her three sons, the couple has a son, 3 1/2, and a daughter, 2, together. Two-year-old Reagan already “Gives 7,” saying, “It is nice to meet you,” in a tiny little voice.
A Little Sport coach and friend of Leonard since the two women were 15 years old, Joanie Balderstone has worked at Little Sport since its inception.
“It makes sense that she would have her own business, doing her own thing," Balderstone says of Leonard. "Doing something no one has done before would be predictable having known her. Little Sport really is a family-oriented place. We ourselves are a tight-knit group.”
Leonard’s sessions with young children who come in for camps or drop-ins for track time are high energy. All include reinforcement of the "Give 7" philosophy or a high five.
“We don’t do any of those limp fish handshakes either,” she smiles.