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Sports and Kids

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It’s a rare parent who doesn’t secretly hope for a naturally athletic child, especially now when sports stars are larger-than-life figures, known for their ability and for the money they earn. And it isn’t too long before children get caught up in the excitement, collecting cards, going to games with their parents, rooting for their favorite teams and individuals. Watching sports on television is practically a national pastime.

  Skill Sets

  Ready or Not

  Choosing the Right Sport

  The Trouble With Teams




Skill Sets

But wait! Your child isn’t even 4 years old. Time for a reality check. What skills does your still-3-year-old possess? She is just learning to catch a bounced ball and to throw overhand, though her accuracy is a bit iffy (she doesn’t have much, actually). She can kick a ball forward most of the time but not in other directions. She’s just beginning to be able to pedal a three-wheeler, hop on one foot, and throw a ball with one hand. But it will be another two to three years before these skills are perfected.

Ready or Not

Skills are one thing. Readiness is another. Because each child is unique, there’s really no way to predict the age at which yours will be ready or willing to participate in group sports. Sometimes a child will signal readiness by an eagerness to play catch. Or perhaps you’ll notice that his play with other kids is evolving into group play featuring different, often changing roles for different kids.

For a child to participate in any game with other participants, he should be able to follow three-step commands. (For example: “Go to the net with Sarah as the goalie; do 20 kicks, and then change places.”) He also should be willing to wait his turn and act after he’s received instructions. Some kids will need a lot of encouragement and some time in the bleachers to get comfortable with the whole athletic scene. The demands for performance can be overwhelming, especially for a shy child. In terms of readiness, temperament is more important than skill. Sports participation should never produce ongoing anxiety, persistent reluctance, or sadness in your child, no matter what age. Watch his responses to know what’s right for him.

Choosing the Right Sport

What is right?

    • In the past, infants were often “taught” to swim. But today, swimming lessons are recommended for children when they are at least 4. Before this age, kids really can’t learn the sequences involved in swimming and are at risk for water intoxication from swallowing too much of it. They can also get very chilled due to their large body-surface area (relative to their mass). Directly supervised fun in the water for short periods is great, but lessons should wait until age 4 —or later, if your child is fearful of the water, swallows a lot of it, or has a hard time following directions. Always be sure she is carefully, directly supervised, because she isn’t “water safe” at this age despite her ability to move her arms and legs.
 
    • Gymnastics or ballet classes are a great way to increase your child’s sense of his body and improve his coordination. Sit in on your child’s classes to be sure he isn’t being pushed too hard and to check for safe conditions, such as surfaces that pose no danger, new equipment, and lots of adult supervision.
 
    • While you may love to roller skate or ice skate, a child this age may find it overly challenging because his ankles are too wobbly, even with support. Try it out with rental equipment if your child seems interested. But don’t invest in equipment of your own until you are sure that skating is right for your child.
 



The Trouble With Teams

Even though you may be observing signs in your preschooler that he’s ready for a team, team sports are usually not ready for him. For one thing, a child this age has trouble keeping more than one thing in his mind at a time. (“Run! Run fast! Whoops, I forgot to kick the ball.”)

Also, preschoolers have a hard time anticipating the results of their actions. (“I kicked the soccer ball, but I can’t keep running until I see where it ends up.”) It’s quite a complicated process for a preschooler to get instructions, understand them, and then take the appropriate action. Generalizing is also an issue: Let’s say the last time Matt kicked the ball to Josh everyone cheered. So Matt reasons that he should do the same thing next time he gets the ball, even if it isn’t appropriate at that point in the game. Who could blame him?

Remember, then, if you think your child is ready for team sports, to limit your own expectations. Rules are too complicated to learn at this age. Just being outside and active, meeting other kids, and perhaps wearing a cool uniform are enough. There’s plenty of time later to make athletics more important. For now it should only be lots of fun.

 
 
 
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