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What is a good age to sign my child for sports?

What’s the earliest age that kids can start playing organized sports?
When is a good time to introduce my kids to sports?
How old should a kid be for sports?

These are some of the most frequent questions that our visitors send us.

Not long ago parents would not be able to find a sport class for kids younger than 5 years old. But in the last 10-20 years this has changed. And not because the kids mature faster these days. It's because more and more parents now recognize that sports let their child meet other kids and learn the skills that will be beneficial for them later in life. Kids that are good with sports are popular in school and may even get a nod for college. Businesses were the first to recognize this trend and it's become relatively easy to sign your 4 and even 3 years old up for sports.
In 2002, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) followed by releasing the first ever physical activity guidelines for infants, toddlers and preschoolers (1). (Copies of the full document are available by calling 1-800-321-0789. The cost is $13 for non-members. Stock number is 304-10254.)
Take home message from this document:
1) kids should be encouraged to be physically active from the beginning of their life.
2) NASPE recommends at least 30 minutes daily of “structured physical activity” for toddlers and at least 60 minutes for preschoolers. “Structured physical activity” includes games and activities, such as dance, that adults direct or do together with children.
3) In addition to the “structured physical activity” toddlers and preschoolers should have at least 60 minutes and up to several hours of “unstructured physical activity” per day. Running around your backyard or a playground are the examples of “unstructured physical activity”.

Organized sports are a different matter. According to the Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness of American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) “Readiness to participate in organized sports should be determined individually, based on the child’s (not the parent’s) eagerness to participate and subsequent enjoyment of the activity. Children are unlikely to be ready before age 6 years” (2).

Here is our summary of NASPE and AAP recommendations for parents:

1) Make sure that your child has at least 1-2 hours of physical activity per day.
2) The physical activity for kids younger than 6 does not have to be in the form of sport classes. Running around a backyard or a playground, jumping, climbing the stairs, kicking, throwing, and catching a ball may all be more appropriate for younger children. These activities may be even better in preparing your child for future participation in organized sports than the premature enrolment in sports classes.
3) Before signing your child up for sports make sure that his physical development is on par with other kids in his program/class. If you're not sure, consult your pediatrician.
4) Sports programs for younger children should be safe and supervised by adults knowledgeable about the specific needs and limitations of preschool children. If necessary, the programs should be modified according to the age of participants.
5) The main focus of structured sports classes for preschoolers should be on kids' having fun and being active, not on competition and victory.

The second most frequent question that parents ask us is:

What’s the best sport for my 3 (or 4, or 5) years old?

Other similar questions include:
What kind of sports can my 3 year old join in?
What sports can I get my almost 3 year old involved in?
What kind of sports can kids play?
Which sports can a 3 year old safely start learning?
American Academy of Pediatrics states that “Additional research and resources are needed to determine the optimal time for children to begin participating in organized sports” (2).
Parents should realize that there are not that many different sports suitable for kids under age of 6. Competitive sports that have complex rules, need special equipment, and require more than a short concentration span may not be developmentally appropriate for small children. Nevertheless, these days parents may find sport programs for kids even younger than 3 years old.

Sports for kids younger than 3.

One of the few sports that has programs available for toddlers and even babies is swimming. You may find a swim class for children as young as 6 month. However, you will have to be in the pool with your kid until he's at least 2 (at most pools it's 3 years old). Also, keep in mind that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics “children are not developmentally ready for swimming lessons until after their fourth birthday” (3). Therefore, it's not likely that 2 or 3 years old will be much of a swimmer any time soon.

Gymnastics is another sport that parents may find suitable for their preschooler and even toddler. Some gyms have programs for kids as small as 6 month old (parental participation required). Programs without parental participation may be available for 3 years old.

Sports for 3-4 year old children.

For children in this age group in addition to swimming and gym you may find programs in tennis, karate, and soccer. However, all these sports are too complex for the 3-4 year olds. Therefore, before signing you kid for the program in one of these sports make sure that the rules of the games are simplified and the drills are kept to a minimum.

And so it goes - every additional year adds up some new kind of sport for you to choose from.

REFERENCES:
1. National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Physical activity guidelines for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, 2002.
New, expanded edition is available from http://www.shapeamerica.org/standards/guidelines/activestart.cfm
2. Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness and Committee on School Health, Organized Sports for Children and Preadolescents, PEDIATRICS Vol. 107 No. 6 June 2001, pp. 1459-1462
3.Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness and Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention, Swimming Programs for Infants and Toddlers, PEDIATRICS Vol. 105 No. 4 April 2000, pp. 868-870.

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