Does your kid love running around and tumbling? Is your toddler obsessed with catching, hitting, and throwing balls? If so, you may be thinking it’s time to start them in a class or join a team.
After all, physical activity encourages mental and emotional development. Sports are also great for socialization and practicing fine and gross motor skills.
But are toddlers really ready for sports? The answer, in most cases, is no.
“Before age 6 years, most children do not have the basic motor skills for organized sports,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Here’s everything we know about sports for kids.
Most toddlers are simply not ready for organized sports. They don’t have the patience, focus, or physical development needed to positively engage in team sports.
As anyone who has met a toddler knows, their temperament may be a challenge. Emotionally, kids younger than 3 (and even those older) struggle with loss. They also need guidance and practice on teamwork and taking turns.
They’re still developing motor skills and coordination. Following multistep instructions or complicated rules might be beyond their abilities.
In addition, their bodies are not fully developed. Their bones are still soft. They are also quite small, and this can be problematic if and when an injury occurs, as standard orthopedic devices don’t typically fit small children, note the experts at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
But that’s not all: Starting sports too early might create negative associations. When children begin playing sports at a young age, they sometimes develop disdain for the activity. It feels like a chore.
So does all this mean that you should discourage your athletic toddler from their running, jumping, and throwing? Not at all! While team sports aren’t yet a fit, free play is a great way to encourage your little one’s athleticism.
While toddlers may not be ready for organized sports, there are activities they can participate in. Young children should be encouraged to play, openly and freely — as open-ended play encourages social and emotional development. It also promotes personal growth.
Toddlers should be active because the more children run and jump and play the healthier they are, and they should engage in activities which help fine-tune their motor skills.
“Athletic skills such as running, kicking a ball, and throwing a ball can be introduced with a wide variability of success depending on the individual toddler’s developmental state,” Carlos Uquillas, a pediatric sports medicine specialist and pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California, explains.
Physical activities to consider for toddlers include, but are not limited to:
- bike or trike riding
- climbing play equipment
Of course, caregiver supervision during these activities is always important, as is using a helmet and other protective gear when bike or trike riding.
When children come of age — when they are 6 or older — there are numerous benefits to playing sports and participating in organized group activities.
Kids who play sports tend to do better socially. According to an AAP policy statement, “participation in organized sports is strongly associated with a positive social self-concept” and a child’s ability to bond with their peers.
Kids who participate in sports do better academically. Numerous studies have shown positive associations between playing sports in high school and success in the classroom.
Physical activity helps strengthen your bones and heart and encourages better sleep. It also has a positive impact on your mental health.
Sports also help children develop emotionally. Learning to navigate teamwork, loss, and other challenges exposes them to challenges in a safe and supportive environment.
In addition, the AAP points out that “teenagers participating in organized sports report fewer mental health problems and have lower odds of emotional distress compared with peers.”
While there are numerous factors to keep in mind when choosing sports or a group activity, the main thing you should consider is whether your child wants to participate in said activity.
If the answer is no, you may want to reassess the situation. Forcing a child to participate in a sport could lead to challenges between you and your child. It may cause undue frustration, and your little one may become resentful because they aren’t happy or “having fun.”
If your child wants to play sports, you should encourage them to do so in a safe and healthy way. This can be done by keeping the following things in mind.
Keep things simple
When introducing young children to sports, it’s best to keep things simple. Elementary school aged children can and should learn the essentials — and only the essentials.
This means finding teams or organizations that work on skill building and basics. Coaches should also prioritize giving kids a chance to try out different positions and roles on the team.
This also means sampling a variety of sports instead of encouraging a young child to specialize.
Kids who focus on one sport very early run the risk of early burnout. The risk of long-term injuries is also increased exponentially due to excessive exertion and overuse in specific areas.
So instead of following a season of baseball with more baseball, change it up. Let your kids try soccer, tennis, basketball, swimming, or dance.
Playing team sports involves turn taking, rule following, focusing, and (in some cases) sharing, and this can be frustrating, particularly to young children. The best way to help them through these moments is to be cool, calm, and collected. A little patience goes a long way.
In addition to being patient, you’ll want to be positive. “Coaches, parents, and teachers should create a positive and uplifting environment that has age-appropriate expectations,” Uquillas says.
The reason? “Environments with intense competitiveness and intimidation can have negative effects and create low self-esteem and anxiety.” So be encouraging, reassuring, and supportive — no matter what.
And stay away from competition
While competition teams can be enjoyable, young children should avoid “competing.” In fact, the AAP recommends children under 12 focus on having fun — and only having fun.
While there are numerous benefits to playing organized sports, there are also real risks, especially if you enroll your child when they’re too young.
Consult with your child’s pediatrician before enrolling them in any activity. Discuss the appropriateness of said activity for their age, and consider the when and the why before signing them up.
Talk to your child as well. In many cases, weekly visits to the park to play, run, and kick the ball with you or their friends is just as much fun for them and allows them to gain skills while having a good time.