By Judy Jeschke
As a parent with children in both preschool and elementary school, I am often asked by parents with younger children when to start their children in sports. Will their children be behind their peers if they don’t start soccer and similar sports at a young age? While toddlers and preschoolers are beginning to master many basic movements, they are generally too young for most organized sports. Toddlers who participate in organized sports typically don’t gain any long-term advantage in terms of future sports and performances. In fact, children who are pushed into organized sports at too early of an age may be turned off to sports for many years, or even completely. I have had several friends who have experienced this with their preschool and kindergarten-aged children.
The National Association of Sports and Physical Education recommends preschoolers get two hours daily of physical activity: one hour of structured, adult-led activities, and one hour of unstructured, free-play. Additionally, they recommend that preschoolers not be inactive for more than one hour at a time, unless sleeping.
What activities are appropriate for young children?
A toddler or preschooler’s initial activities should be fun, challenging and build coordination, but not beyond their abilities. Preschoolers enjoy showing off their newly acquired skills, such as: hopping, skipping, jumping forward, balancing on one foot, catching a ball and doing a somersault. It is important for preschoolers to engage in a wide variety of movements and skills. Some activities that are ideal for preschoolers include:
- running or hiking
- riding a tricycle or bicycle with training wheels
- kicking or throwing a ball toward a goal or hoop
- practice hitting a ball off of a tee-ball stand
- childhood games, such as Duck, Duck, Goose; freeze
- tag; or freeze dance
- games that improve balance, such as pretending to be statues
- using playground equipment
Most importantly is to teach young children to make being active a normal daily routine.
How do you know when children are ready for more?
At some point, your child will be ready to move beyond backyard activities into more formal organized sports and leagues. While every child reaches physical, emotional and developmental milestones at a different pace, by age five or six, most children understand concepts that are crucial to many sports. Some considerations for determining a young child’s readiness for organized sports activities include:
- how patient they are
- their ability to take turns
- if they are ready to separate from their parents without meltdowns
- their reactions when things don’t go their way
- how well they play with others
- if being the center of attention will get them upset
- if a child desires to try a particular sport
Which program is best?
Once a child is ready to try an organized sport, choosing the right program can be tricky. Most young children have short attention spans and are easily distracted, so a setting with minimal distractions is ideal. Sports for preschoolers and kindergarteners should focus on having fun and building skills, and not the rules and regulations of the sport or competition. If a young child spends the whole game watching the other children or scores a goal for the other team, that’s okay as long as the child is having fun. If a child is not having fun, try to find out why and address the issue or find another activity.
A good program should also have enthusiastic coaches and a low coach-participant ratio where a child does not have to wait a long time for their turn. Coaches should use a show-and-tell format with physical demonstrations of skills and games. In my personal experience, the coach/participant ratio is particularly important. When my oldest son was four, we signed him up for a soccer class which had two coaches and approximately 12 children enrolled. He loved the program, so at the end of the eight-week session, we enrolled again at a different date and time. This time, the program had four coaches, and about 35 children, resulting in lots of waiting around. Instead of enjoying this class, my son was frustrated and bored. Finally, you should consider your child’s temperament. Some kids are inclined toward team sports, while others prefer to focus on their individual efforts. Often it may take a few tries, or seasons, before finding which sport is a good fit for a child.
Judy Jeschke is the mother to three talented and over-scheduled children, ages four, seven and nine. She is also a board member and the newsletter editor at United Methodist Co-Op (UMC) Nursery School. UMC Nursery School is a parent-directed, cooperative nursery school that offers a unique program for children 18 months to five years of age. It is located in Burlingame and is a member of the San Mateo Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools. For more information, visit www.umcnurseryschool.com