The importance of physical activity in a child’s life — particularly when screens are omnipresent — cannot be overstated. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says kids should participate in active play one hour a day or more, and team sports are a great way to get your child moving. But the benefits extend far beyond the playing field. According to The Aspen Institute’s Project Play, participation in organized sports helps children develop cognitive skills, is associated with academic achievement, and can enhance concentration, extend attention span, and improve classroom behavior. There are social benefits too — kids learn teamwork, develop a sense of belonging and community, and build self-esteem.
But if your child isn’t ready or interested in sports, participating on a team can be frustrating instead of fun — for your child and you. Not sure if it’s the right time to join a team? Consider your child’s cognitive, physical and emotional development to determine his or her sports readiness. Here’s what to look for:
Motor skills: Throwing, jumping, balancing, running and following fast-moving objects are important skills that often need to be used in combination with one another to play sports. That’s not to say your child must master all motor skills before joining a team. Many sports programs start young children on teams that focus on learning these skills — just make sure you enroll your child at the appropriate level for his age and ability.
Attention span: One way to determine whether your child is ready for sports is to talk to her teacher about her attention span and ability to follow directions without getting regularly sidetracked. Remember: When your child joins a team, she will be expected to participate in practices, do what the coach says, and play a game by a certain set of rules. If a coach needs to spend extra time convincing a child to do these things, it can be a disruption and unfair to the other kids. If your child’s not quite ready, consider physical activities that offer a more relaxed environment and free play.
Social skills: Does your child refuse to leave your side? Playing a sport with other kids requires a child to separate from mom and dad in order to practice and play, which means a toddler or preschooler may not be willing to participate. That said, sports are a great opportunity for slightly older children to gain confidence and social skills. If your child has an interest and seems to be ready in other ways, there’s no reason not to join.
Interest: Does your child want to play sports? At a young age, he might not even know how to answer that question, so take time to observe him to see what he gravitates toward. Does your child love to run, kick and throw balls, or tumble? You can also try different tot-level classes to see what your child enjoys before committing to a season with a team.
Is age a good indicator of sports readiness? It depends. While some sports — like soccer and t-ball — begin as young as 3, most kids aren’t truly developmentally ready for a team until kindergarten or later. That doesn’t necessarily mean your child shouldn’t play, but you shouldn’t expect to watch an organized game. At the preschool-level, kids can practice drills that improve their coordination and other motor skills as well as begin to learn to follow directions from a coach and cooperate with other children on their team.
Finally, consider your family’s ability to make a commitment to a sports team. Caregiver and me classes usually last about 45 minutes and only happen once a week — in other words, the time commitment is minimal. If your child is going to join a team sport, the commitment can expand — exponentially, if she eventually participates at a competitive level. Even on recreational teams, expect practices to be at least once a week for an hour in addition to a game. The financial commitment can also be significant. Uniforms must be purchased along with special shoes and other equipment. These costs add up quickly, so be prepared if your child joins a team.