Q: [Toddler] What age is best for starting organized activities for my kids and what are the recommended sports?
A: At around the age of 15-18 months, age-appropriate movement for children includes running and throwing or kicking a ball. These simple skills are part of normal toddler development, and it is natural for parents to begin thinking about when to start organized sport activities. However, children this young are not quite ready for more complex tasks like being taught proper throwing or kicking technique or learning to follow formal rules. All play at this age should be fun and spontaneous with minimal organization. Let the child lead in terms of how much and what to do.
Pre-school and early school-aged children, on the other hand, should learn skills such as balancing, tumbling, rolling and jumping. No matter what activity is selected later in life, command of these fundamental tasks will enhance future athletic ability and overall safety. Formal introduction of organized sports should usually begin at age five at the earliest.
Why? Most five-year-old children have developed a long-enough attention span to listen, work with other children and follow simple multi-step commands. They also can learn a task in one situation (school) and repeat it in a new situation (home).
This is why children tend to start kindergarten at age five, and these abilities can allow them starting more formal sport activities.
From ages 5-8, the main emphasis should be on fun and learning of multiple basic sport skills. There should be limited focus on competition (keeping score or standings) as competition is so complex it may interfere with learning skills.
Contrary to the beliefs of many parents and coaches, early starts or success in sports is not consistently correlated with success in later years. It is most sensible to allow young children to sample different sports and develop a variety of movement patterns and potential interests. And it is probably best to start with one organized activity at a time. Try not to underestimate the value of child-directed free play. Children who have more free play than adult-directed activities tend to have less injuries as they progress in sports.
Want a good guide on how much to do? Keep your child’s age in mind. Injury rates go up if hours per week of an organized sport are higher than the age in years.
Speaking of progression, be aware of how some sports become “all inclusive” at relatively young ages. Take the five-year-old just starting organized sports and fast-forward just three years. Many eight-year-olds are participating in just one sport on year-round or nearly year-round basis.
Don’t immediately assume that more is better at a younger age. Data suggests that sports sampling and holding off on sport-specialization until early adolescence is best for long-term health and development. At young ages, the “winning percentage” should not be based on any measure of wins and losses, but rather on how much fun the children have and how many want to play again the next season.
Dr. Chris Koutures is a dual board-certified pediatric and sports medicine specialist practicing at ActiveKidMD in Anaheim Hills. He is a team physician for USA Volleyball, U.S. Figure Skating Sports Medicine Network and Cal State Fullerton Intercollegiate Athletics.