Q: I think sports are great for teaching kids values like perseverance, commitment, and teamwork. I want to get my son started as soon as possible. He’s in kindergarten and some people have told me he might be too young. How do you I know if he’s ready?
For preschool and primary school ages, it’s important to make a clear distinction between “sports” in the competitive sense and what we might call physical “activities” and precursors to sports.
For the sake of discussion, at the preschool and early primary ages, let’s refer to things like organized hockey, soccer, tennis, and baseball as sports (competitive element), and things like swimming, dance and skating as physical activities.
Children can easily start activities such as swimming and skating during their preschool and even toddler years. Introductory gymnastics programs are also great at early ages for developing agility, balance, and coordination that can be used in all sports later. All of these activities develop important fundamental movement skills while developing your child’s enjoyment of physical activity. At later ages, these activities can also become competitive sports, but this is seldom the case at preschool and primary school ages.
When it comes to sports like hockey, soccer, and the rest, you need to proceed with caution. The competitive emotions among adult organizers and spectators very often ruin the experience for young children, even if it is a minority of adults who get overly excited. As Steve Nash’s dad says, adult obsession with winning can have a very negative effect.
In this regard, you can be sure that your average five-year-old does not see winning as a live-or-die proposition, and this is entirely healthy. They are interested in play in the purest sense of the word. Furthermore, in terms of psychological and cognitive development, they often can’t grasp the basic rules of the sport or essential playing concepts like passing to teammates. Many of these are adult concepts, and most children are not ready to appreciate these ideas until they are a bit older and further into elementary school.
This is a good reminder that we need to respect each child’s stage of development not only physically, but also cognitively and emotionally. (In fact, this is the rationale behind the Long-Term Athlete Development model.)
Every child is different, but most four- and five-year-olds will develop a better connection with a sport such as soccer or baseball if they start simply by playing at home with their parents, siblings, and friends. Parent and child play is actually a great way to build fundamental skills in a fun, accepting, and safe environment. By playing and practicing the basics at home, your child develops the fundamental skills to participate with confidence when he decides to play the game with friends at school or join an organized team later.
If you have factors that limit your child’s ability to play at home, a multi-sport program such as Sportball is another option for introducing your child to traditional “competitive” sports in a fun, non-competitive environment.
At the end of the day, you have to know your own child. There may be a very few children who are ready for organized sports at age four or five, but most will do much better to wait until age six, seven or even eight.
If you do decide to register your son for an organized sport, be sure to review the elements that make up a quality program in that sport. When kids enter programs that fail to address their developmental age, they often have negative experiences that discourage them from continuing simply because the program is poorly adapted for their stage of development.