Children in the United States are participating in athletics in unprecedented numbers and at younger and younger ages. In the face of climbing rates of childhood obesity, the idea of starting kids on a lifetime program of activity is attractive. So while sports programs for preschoolers have emerged in recent years and are good for teaching sportsmanship and structure, they should be approached with caution.
Children ages 2 through 5 years are not emotionally or physically ready for competitive sports. They lack the strength and coordination to perform strenuous repetitive athletic tasks, and have short attention spans with limited tolerance for the conflict and frustration inherent in athletic contests. Winning and losing are adult concepts that are difficult for young children to properly comprehend. By ages 6 through 8 years, children begin to understand game rules and the concept of teamwork.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends unstructured free play for young children. Sports classes that emphasize running, climbing, kicking and tumbling in a fun, non-competitive format may be a safe and appropriate way to introduce preschoolers to athletics.
It is important for the adults who supervise these introductory programs to clearly outline their philosophy and goals for parents. Pediatric physical therapists and child life specialists are well suited to design and direct this type of class. During the preschool years, a positive environment that rewards effort rather than ability, participating rather than winning and builds self-esteem for every player is paramount. Parent participation must be limited; overzealous or critical commentary must not be tolerated.
Some parents have been known to enroll their preschoolers in flag football leagues featuring playoffs and ultimately a “Super Bowl.” This is unfortunate; those children are being taught that play is only about winning and losing. No preschooler should be put in a position to lose an adult game.
Along with the emotional aspects, preschoolers are at unique risk for injury. Their joints are still very flexible and their protective reflexes are still emerging. They fall frequently and their heads are large relative to their bodies. All of these factors make them poorly suited for collision and contact sports.
In summary, sports programs for toddlers and preschoolers should offer a fun, physical experience without emphasis on competition or keeping score. Parents of participants must understand that this is play, not disciplined athletic training. To do otherwise is unfair to child and adult alike.
Dr. David Anderson is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with Mercy Children’s Hospital St. Louis.