For the past few years I have been sent scores of athletic training videos for babies and toddlers, to review, by a number of companies claiming the essential importance of giving kids an edge in youth sports. I have also had an opportunity to visit a number of gyms established for the purpose of training younger and younger kids.
Let’s explore whether they give kids an edge in the increasingly cut-throat world of youth sports or if they just reflect the commercialization of youth sports and the fact that we have become a nation of “helicopter” parents, hovering over our kids, trying to enrich every second of their lives – even as infants – with activities instead of just letting them be kids.
One of the reasons some parents give for enrolling their toddlers and infants in organized sports programs is the belief that it will give them an edge over their peers when they start team sports when they are five or six, an edge they may continue to enjoy when they get to middle school, high school, and perhaps beyond.
While I believe that some programs, especially those created by early childhood experts who stress open and free play, without adults enforcing rules and regulations at such an early age, are socially beneficial, the problem is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the belief that early sports training will provide an edge as the child starts playing organized sports, much less give them an edge when they are competing for roster spots on high school teams.
Each child follows his or her own unique developmental timetable and attempts to alter that timetable through early sports programs are destined to fail. Early sports classes aren’t going to make a child any more coordinated, any sooner. Athletic success involves many factors, including genetics, mental attitude, access to training and money; any attempt to increase the chances of future achievement by teaching skills at earlier and earlier ages simply won’t work and may end up backfiring by burning them out and exposing them earlier and earlier to overuse injuries. Even if such early training gives a child an edge over his or her peers when they are four, five, six or seven, whether they will still be sports stars when they enter adolescence is virtually impossible to predict. One of my favorite studies on youth sports development is one from 2006 published in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. The study shows that only one out of four kids viewed as “superstars” at the age of 10, 11, and 12 year olds goes on to star in high school sports.
Parents need to avoid the mind-set that more is better. In many instances, less is truly more. Parents are under enormous pressure these days to help their kids succeed and to keep up with other parents, but the answer isn’t to fill every second of their lives with activities. A play date or a trip to the neighborhood playground or kicking a ball around in the back yard are every bit as good at giving toddlers the chance to exercise and socialize as a sports class.
Experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, continue to emphasize the importance of free, unstructured play in child development. More and more organized activities should not be at the expense of free play, which is critical to healthy child development for a number of reasons:
- Play is critically important to healthy child development. Without play, children will be much less likely to develop just the kinds of thinking we feel are so vital to a productive and intelligent adult life.
- Play is needed for creativity. Believe it or not, boredom is actually good in moderation by stimulating kids to think and create.
- Play helps children learn how to work collaboratively, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and learn self-advocacy skills.
- When play is controlled by adults – such as in organized sports classes – children have to follow adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership and group skills.
Active child-centered play is a time-tested way of producing healthy, fit young bodies. In fact, a 2010 study recommends “informal physical activity in home or neighborhood settings” as one of the ways for kids to get the 60 minutes of moderate- and vigorous physical activity experts say they need each day (an amount, the same study shows, our kids are not getting solely from participating in organized youth sports).
Parents should recognize that by sharing unscheduled spontaneous time and playing with their children they are being just as supportive, nurturing and productive as by signing them up for more and more sports and other adult-supervised activities. Have the courage to say no. Instead of feeling guilty and worrying that if you don’t do everything possible, don’t go the extra mile, your kids will suffer, will be deprived, or will fall behind their peers, understand that sometimes the best thing a parent can do for a child is nothing. Letting our children be children is key.
Most children aren’t developmentally ready to participate in organized sports until they are five or six (and even then, only on a limited basis). I recommend against team sports before age six, seven and even eight and for contact sports wait until middle school.
Yes, a child needs to have experienced the basic skills (running, throwing, balance and ability to track objects and judge speeds) before she begins sports, but let them learn in their backyards with a parent, sibling or local high school baby sitter with an interest in sports who will play one-on-one with your child, in their own environment at their own pace.
It is critically important that parents have realistic expectations about their child’s development. If you set unrealistic expectations, you are bound to be disappointed. If you are thinking of signing your toddler up for sports classes before the age of five look for programs that:
- Emphasize exercise and keep the kids moving, and not organized drills;
- Don’t place unrealistic, age-inappropriate expectations on children;
- Are all about having fun; and
- Don’t promise to make your child more coordinated or skilled, or give them an advantage when they start organized sports.
- [Are] run with early childhood experts rather than sports coaches
One only has to raise non-identical triplet boys, as I have done, to know that each child has their own developmental blueprint and develops at their own rate. To try to force a child to learn a sport long before they are ready is a fool’s errand and a waste of money, in my view. For years, I have suggested to parents that they save their money in a summer camp fund for when the children are older, perhaps, thirteen or fourteen, when they are developmentally and psychologically ready to start concentrating on a single sport.
Copyright: © 2011 Brooke de Lench/MomsTeam.com
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