The number of children who participate in organized sports continues to grow every year. Not only will playing a sport help to keep kids physically active and healthy, but sports can help kids of all ages learn important life skills.
Sports can teach children how to work with others, how to learn and master new skills, how to value competition and how to cope with success and failure. It is however, important to remember that when choosing a sport, one must consider the age, personality, ability, and interest of each individual child.
Although activities are available for preschool aged children, the physical and mental skills required to play an organized sport will not develop until age 6 or 7. Sports and activities geared for children from ages 2 through 5 should focus on active play and having fun. Research shows that less than one third of kids in this age group can effectively throw and catch a ball. In fact, these younger children are likely to still be learning basic skills of running, jumping, and hopping. Activities geared for these children should introduce the rules of the game in a supervised and unstructured environment. Swimming and tumbling are ideal for this age, where the instructions can be limited and playtime is often involved. Keep in mind that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness “does not recommend infant exercise programs as beneficial for development or helpful for future performance.”
After age 5 children develop more control over their motor skills and will have less of a challenge staying balanced and coordinated. In addition, by this age children can better follow directions and understand the rules of game. They are also more likely to play well with others and comprehend the meaning of teamwork. Sports that can be adapted for basic understanding and that will encourage success and participation are better choices. The equipment used for this age should be appropriate for a smaller body size. Practice and game time should be limited, and allow for frequent position changes and less focus on score keeping.
In early school aged children it is important to recognize that a child’s personality will help them to find a sport they are well suited for. Some children will show interest in team sports and others will be more comfortable in individual activities. In addition, families should show patience as it may take a few seasons or sports until a child finds the most enjoyable sport.
Later school aged children between 10 and 12 years old are likely ready to participate in more complex activities. Children in this age group will have both the mental and physical skills required to be more active and learn sports strategies. At this age organized sports should teach skill development and participation. Families should use caution regarding specialization in a single sport due to the risks of overuse injuries and burnout. In fact the AAP recommends “avoiding specializing in one sport before puberty.” Statistics show that only 1 in 4 “outstanding” elementary school athletes will be a star player in high school and that 1 in 6,600 high school football players will go on to become professionals.
Children in this age group are growing and maturing at different rates. Some will start showing signs of puberty, which will result in some kids being taller, heavier, and stronger. However, this growth spurt may not always be advantageous, as changes in size can lead to difficulties with balance and body control, changing the center of gravity. In addition, during this time of rapid growth, the growth plate, an area of cartilage at the end of bones, is at its weakest and more susceptible to injury. An injury in this area, which is in fact a fracture, can lead to permanent damage to growth. Coaches and athletes should therefore be mindful of limiting stress to the bones by varying training exercises and changing schedules in order to limit overuse.
Participation in sports has many benefits to children of all ages, but above all needs to be fun. Remember that everyone should be given the chance to participate, and learning to lose is as important as reveling in a win. Parents and coaches should model this behavior, and not pressure children to continue to play if they are hurt or if they are truly unhappy. Always encourage children to play fair, follow the rules, help the team, and have a great time!
Leslie Greenberg, MD, FAAP is a general pediatrician practicing with Princeton Nassau Pediatrics. She graduated from Brandeis University magna cum laude with a BA in sociology. She attended medical school at Tufts University School of Medicine and completed her residency training at The Children's Hospital of Montefiore in the Bronx, NY. She currently lives in the West Windsor, NJ area with her husband and two sons. She has been with PNP since 2009. Princeton Nassuau Pediatrics is a group of board certified general pediatricians whose mission is providing the highest level of health care to the children of the greater Princeton, West Windsor, Monroe, and Pennington areas. The group provides state of the art care for children from infancy through college based on the most up-to-date medical advances. PNP has four locations, and offers routine well care visits, same day sick visits, weekend/holiday and evening urgent care coverage, as well as full in-office laboratory services. Visit www.princetonnassaupediatrics.com.