Organized sports can help kids grow in many ways. From soccer to fencing, sports offer chances for kids to learn and master skills, work with their peers and coaches, and challenge themselves in a safe environment. They learn the value of practice and the challenge of competition. And on top of all that, sports provide natural and fun opportunities for kids to get regular exercise.
But before signing kids up for sports, parents should consider a child's personality and developmental level to help ensure that being involved in sports is a positive experience for everyone.
When Should Kids Start Playing Sports?
As you think about signing kids up for sports, consider how emotionally and physically ready they are to participate. Signing up too early can end up being frustrating for everyone, and can turn kids off from sports for good.
Although there are sports programs designed for preschoolers, it's not until about age 6 or 7 that most kids develop the appropriate physical skills or the attention span needed to listen to directions and grasp the rules of the game. While preschoolers can throw and run, it usually takes some time before they can coordinate the two skills. And it usually isn't until kindergarten or first grade that kids grasp concepts like "taking turns" that are crucial to many sports.
That doesn't mean kids can't play sports when they're younger. Sports can be fun for toddlers and kindergartners, but they should be less about competition and more about having fun opportunities to be active. So even if young kids inadvertently score a goal for the other team or spend the entire game chasing butterflies, as long as they're enjoying it, that's OK.
If you do decide to sign your 5-year-old up for a team, be sure to choose a league that emphasizes fun and basic skills.
If kids show an interest in a sport, try to let them do it. You may be worried that your child will get hurt, particularly in a contact sport like football, but as long as the coach requires players to use the correct safety gear, your doctor OK's it, and your child is matched up with other kids of the same size and ability, go ahead. Even if the sport doesn't turn out to be a good fit, your child will learn much from the experience.
When choosing a sport, consider your child's unique temperament. Some kids are naturally inclined toward team sports, while others may feel more comfortable in activities where the focus is on individual efforts. There's something for everyone — from soccer and baseball for team-oriented kids, to tennis, fencing, karate, dancing, and swimming for kids who'd rather go solo.
Don't be surprised if it takes a few tries — or a few seasons — to find the sport that's right for your child. It often takes time for kids to figure out which activities they enjoy.
Some kids may just not be interested in team sports, but they can still keep fit by engaging in other activities that don't emphasize competition. No matter what they choose, kids should be physically active for at least 60 minutes a day.
Before you sign up for a season of sports, think about how practices and games are going to affect the day-to-day life of your child and the rest of the family:
How will it affect how much time your child has for things like homework, other activities, and time with friends and family? You may want to get the schedule of practices and games and map out a typical week on a calendar with your child.
It's important for kids to have time to rest, think creatively, and play freely when they're not engaged in something else. This rest can help give them the energy they need for their activities.
How will the sport affect the rest of the family's plans? Many teams only practice and play games during the weekend, which can be a problem if your family likes weekend getaways.
If you have more than one child playing sports, how will you coordinate transportation to practices and games?
How involved do you want to be in the sport, and how involved does your child want you to be? Sports leagues usually look for parents to volunteer with everything from coaching to team snacks and transportation. Being involved — either as a coach or in another role — can be a great way to spend time with your kids and show them you're interested in what they do.
However kids feel when they enroll for a season of sports, there may come a time when they want to quit. If your child comes to you with this plea, try to find the reason behind it. It may have to do with something small and fixable, like a bad-fitting uniform, or it may be a bigger issue, like how comfortable your child feels with the coach or the kids on the team. It could also be that your child just doesn't enjoy the sport.
Is it OK to let kids quit? If your child is on a team that depends on his or her participation, you may want to explain the importance of sticking it out for the season. If that's not the case, then think about what you want your child to get out of the experience, and how quitting would affect that.
When kids are overscheduled or unhappy, quitting may be the right thing. But it's still important for all kids to be physically active every day, even if they're no longer playing an organized sport.
Before Signing Up
Kids should have a physical examination before beginning any sports or fitness program. Those with certain medical conditions, vision or hearing problems, or other disorders may have difficulty playing some sports. Rarely, a doctor may find an undiagnosed condition that can affect participation.
Although you should share your interests with your kids, it's never a good idea to force them into an activity just because you once excelled in it. And once they choose a sport, be sure to head out to the field, gym, or pool to cheer them on.
These are general guidelines to keep in mind. Kids mature at their own pace and develop their unique skills at different times, so consider your child's emotional and physical maturity before you commit to a season of sports. There's no point in forcing sports on kids of if they're not having fun.