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Tiny Sports Stars?

The most recent issue of Parenting Early Years includes an article called, “Tiny Teams” written by Patty Onderko (Parenting Early Years, April, 2011, p. 25).  The article discusses the potential hazards of starting children in organized sports before their bodies are ready to do so.  Onderko’s research included the startling statistic that, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3.5 million kids under the age of 14 receive medical treatment for sports related injuries each year.

There are classes and teams for most sports beginning at age 3.  Many of these classes are nothing more than a group of kids chasing a ball and laughing, who happen to be wearing the same color.  They are non-competitive programs meant to enhance social interactions while introducing kids to different means of exercise.  These classes can be a lot of fun and get your child involved in different activities.  My daughter has tried tennis and ice-skating with great success.

But there are also classes and teams out there that do focus on building a competitive edge.  These teams are meant to groom children for specific sports.  Some of these programs even run all year.  3 and 4 year olds can play T-ball every season, if they so choose (or, more realistically, if their parents so choose).

Pediatricians actually warn against focusing on one sport at such a young age.  Since children’s bones are still developing at these young ages, focusing on one activity and limited movements can lead to overuse injuries before they even graduate from middle school.

I was always an athlete growing up, and I played a few different sports.  My husband played a few sports for a while, until he decided to focus on music.  People often ask me if our kids are taking guitar or piano lessons yet and if they show any musical talent.  With my organized sports days behind me, they don’t think to ask about athletics.  We are not a football or baseball focused family.  In fact, we really only tune in for the finals in any given sport.

I always shake my head when the music questions start.  Being married to a musician does not mean that we are raising mini-musicians.  We are raising happy, healthy kids who will find their own destinies.  We are also raising a four year old and a two and a half year old.  My husband often says that it’s best to hold off on musical training until at least 9, but more likely 11.  Why?  Similar to the recommendations about organized sports, kids hands are still growing and developing.  It’s hard to hold those guitar strings down.  Although some will argue that the violin is perfect for small fingers, why pressure children when they might not be physically or emotionally ready to take on such a challenge?

My daughter loves to take classes.  She truly enjoys the social aspect of it as much as the physical.  I enroll her in one class at a time (outside of preschool).  She’s currently in ballet mode, and does very well in her classes.  When the day comes that she wants to move on and try something else (and that day will come), we will simply move on.  She’s been very inquisitive about gymnastics lately, so that seems like a good summer plan.

I hear the conversations between parents who want their kids to excel in a certain sport.  They share dreams of full scholarships.  They seek out as many programs as possible to give their child an edge.  At age 3.  I just don’t understand it.

Aside from the alarming information about sports related injuries, there is a huge stress related component that goes along with pushing kids too hard too young.  I’ve heard the same arguments from parents who enroll their kids in twice weekly violin classes with a side of piano.  Kids have a limited amount of time to just be kids and have fun.  Why would we possibly take that away from them?

It seems like a good strategy is to follow the child’s lead.  If T-ball is your child’s only interest, find a non-competitive league that focuses on social skills and just having fun.  But if your child resists organized play, you can feel good knowing that time spent at the playground is just as beneficial (if not more so) than time spent on the ball field.

What do you think about organized sports for toddlers?


Wednesday 25th of May 2011

Many good points here. My own daughter (who is seven now) was just two and a half when we put her in skating lessons. But the reason was that we were at the rink with my son (who was four) while he was participating in the Canskate lessons (Skate Canada's learn to skate program at our local rink) and we couldn't keep her off the ice. So the head coach said, "Find her some skates and see what she does." At that time the youngest on the ice were 3 and 4, and their primary coach was also an Early Childhood educator who kept them occupied with rounding up a collection of stuffies and small coloured rings while learning to use their emerging skating skills to do so. Some crawled, some walked, some ran and some skated (sort of). My 2 year old got her hands on a plastic Little tikes grocery cart she could push around and that was it. She wouldn't give it up for anything. And she would cry when it was time to get off the ice. Now, at 7 1/2, she skates three days a week (4 1/2 hours a week) and highland dances twice a week. All of this (esp the dance) is her choice, and always has been. We experienced a few weeks of not wanting to go in the early months of kindergarten, but at that time she didn't want to go anywhere or do anything we wanted her to do. Most programs that we have experience with are gearing their program components to the needs of young children, where they spend much of their first few years (3-6 years of age) learning the activities through play. The only place we have seen a more rigourous approach was at one of the local ballet schools where in kindergarten we were expected to have them dancing twice a week and doing tap as well. And there were the shows and exams and whatnot, a bit much. Hence we moved to Highland, where things are much more "fun" and relaxed, and we can choose to dance as many (as three times a week) times or as little as once a week if we choose.

Practical Parenting

Thursday 26th of May 2011

sounds like you've found a great balance...and that's what it's all about!