More and more organized sports programs offer young children the opportunity to participate. In my hometown, children as young as 3 years old can choose from gymnastics, soccer, basketball and baseball. Most of these sports take the form of classes where children learn basic skills while enjoying physical activity.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the push for organized sports at younger ages is a recent development. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, most sports for young children were spontaneous occurrences in their own neighborhoods – the pick-up game of basketball, freeze tag on a front lawn, or kickball in the street.
Is this increase in sports programs for young children a positive development? What age is too young to get involved in competitive, organized sports? What effects can participation have on children’s physical and emotional development?
Sports Participation Develops Motor and Social Skills
Sports participation brings many positives for children. In an era where too many children spend too much time involved in sedentary indoor activities, sports provide much needed exercise. Running, kicking, throwing and jumping are all gross motor skills essential to young children’s coordinated physical development.
Additionally, sports can help young children develop social skills as well as motor skills. Being part of a team requires patience, negotiation, and communication. Learning to take turns and follow directions are useful academic skills transferable to kindergarten and elementary classrooms.
Lastly, the presence of a coach or other adult directing the activity brings a measure of safety to kids’ play and helps ensure that they learn the skills necessary to each sport.
Best Coaches Have Developmental and Sports Knowledge
However, now that sports have become a business with either professional coaches or parent volunteers in charge of teams, the play is no longer the child-directed activity it once was. While involving adults can be beneficial in terms of learning skills and rules of the game and keeping everyone safe, there is no guarantee that the adults in charge know anything about child development or age appropriate abilities. Often, coaches are people who played when they were younger or volunteers who want to spend time with their children.
But there are developmental milestones to consider. For example, the ability to perform two or more gross motor skills at the same time (throwing a ball while running, for example) often does not develop until age 4 or 5.
The ability to follow complex three or four step directions – or even the attention span to listen to them and sustain interest in an activity, is another skill that young children are still learning.
As a position paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics points out, “Basic motor skills, such as throwing, catching, kicking, and hitting a ball, do not develop sooner simply as a result of introducing them to children at an earlier age.”
Parents Should Choose Sports Programs Carefully
Particularly for the younger set, coaching involves more than just knowing the game. Parents should look for coaches who know – and enjoy – the age group they are coaching. The activities should be tailored to that age group.
For example, sports programs for 3-5 year olds should be short sessions of about 45 minutes to an hour. Within each session, the emphasis should be on play, with skills learned through games instead of drills. Additionally, each individual activity should be short lived, with many different activities per session and time allotted to free play.
At a young age, variety is important. Children need to develop all of their muscle groups. Therefore, young children should not spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on only one sport.
Sports medicine practitioners are now seeing an incredible increase in repetitive stress injuries in young children. A review of articles on youth and sports injuries shows that children are especially vulnerable to injury during growth spurts, when strength, height and weight may not be in balance.
Helping children build strength and endurance through the regular play in which they naturally engage will lessen the risk of injury and contribute to later athletic prowess.
Best Sport for Young Children is Natural Play
While organized sports can be fun and beneficial for young children, they should comprise just a small portion of children’s time and energy. The best way to develop a young athlete is to let him or her engage in plenty of active, free play during the toddler and preschool years.