Organized Sports for Preschoolers
If your preschooler isn't already involved in a sport, chances are you're considering it. These days, organized sports for 3- to 5-year-olds are "more the norm than the exception," says Dr. Eric Small, a pediatric/adolescent sports medicine specialist and author of Kids & Sports (Newmarket Press, 2002).
However, not everyone is enthusiastic about this trend. In a 2001 policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that although organized sports offer "physical and social benefits" for children, "the younger the participant, the greater the concern about safety and benefits."
But most families find organized sports hard to resist. After all, they can be a lot of fun. Playing sports also provides preschoolers with regular physical activity, something many kids don't get enough of. And an organized sport can give children a safe, structured environment in which to begin learning about teamwork and fair play.
Make Friends, Build Fitness
One reason for the increasing popularity of youth sports is the breakdown of the geographic neighborhood, says Barbara Stahl, author of Parenting, SportsMom Style: Real-Life Solutions for Surviving the Youth Sports Scene (307 Books, 2000). "Parents and children are looking at sports as a way to connect with others," she says. Communities have become less connected, and organized sports are filling the gap.
Sports also can help young children learn social skills and motor skills. "A lot of kids that age don't do daycare or they're not in preschool yet, so this is their first interaction with somebody other than a family member," says Ashley Chamberlain, a former optional level gymnast who has been coaching gymnastics since 1991 and teaches preschool gymnastics for Creek Flipsters in Beavercreek, Ohio.
Chamberlain's students learn about being around other children, taking turns, standing in line and safety. "The big thing is getting them used to interacting with somebody other than Mom and Dad," says Chamberlain.
J.P. Christiansen has been coaching soccer for five years and currently coaches a girl's team for the Northeast Louisiana Soccer Association. Christiansen says that playing sports is a great way for kids to make friends and get exercise. It also offers preschoolers the chance to learn about persistence. "If you want to score a goal, you have to run and hustle and kick the ball in order to do it," he says. "You can't just stand around and expect things to come to you."
Finally, obesity and other health problems related to inactivity are on the rise. Sports can foster a love for being active if you make sure your child's first experiences are positive ones, says Stahl. "Shift away from competition," she says. "Make sure it's fun."
It's All About Fun
When you enroll your preschooler in an organized sport, you walk what Stahl calls "a very fine line" between doing it for them and doing it for you. "Our society is so competitive, and as parents we can transfer that to the sports field," Stahl says. "It's a very negative trend." She notes that competition has its place, "at older ages and in the right context."
"[Preschoolers] can get sprains and strains and broken bones, [but] as of yet we don't see an epidemic or a problem with that," says Dr. Small. His concern is more about the psychological damage that being pushed too hard too soon can do. "A lot of times in youth leagues, the parent who's coaching wants to live through their kids," says Dr. Small. "They forget that the kid is just a toddler and that they should be having fun."
Dr. Small recommends waiting until children reach age 5 or 6 before involving them in organized sports. He suggests that the youngest preschoolers explore sports activities but not in a league. "There are programs that just focus on skill development," he says. "That's what we're looking to do."
When choosing a sport, class or activity, look closely at the coach or instructor. You should see enthusiasm, patience and someone who understands the developmental levels of a 3- to 5-year-old. "It's not necessarily about their ability to coach, but more how they interact with the children," says Chamberlain. "There are some coaches that are great coaches, but they're very strict. They don't know how to relate to a 4-, 5- or 6-year-old."
Motor skills, maturity level, social readiness and ability to understand directions are important factors for deciding if your child is ready to try any activity. However, most preschool coaches say there's room for all children in non-competitive sports. "Some kids just stand around and watch, but even if they're doing that, they may be having a good time," Christiansen says. "They don't have to be the star of the team to have fun."
Christiansen, a father of three, knew his 4-year-old son was ready to start soccer when he started asking to go to practice with his older sister. If your child has expressed an interest in a sport, he's probably ready to try it out.
And if your preschooler stops having fun, it's OK to let them quit. "They are interested in many things and want to experiment, and parents should let them," Stahl says. "At that age, I don't think focusing on lessons about not quitting is important at all."
Sign your preschooler up for sports, and you'll be expending time, money and possibly more effort than your little athlete. Is it worth it? Christiansen thinks so, especially because of the satisfaction he gets from seeing their faces at the end of a game. "There's nothing like seeing all those kids," he says. "They're all smiling whether they won or lost, because they really don't care, and they've got sweat running down their faces. And they're all sitting there with a drink and a snack, and they're just all happy because they got a snack. And that's it."