From the moment she could hoist herself up, my daughter Layla has loved to climb. She's as happy hanging from the monkey bars as she is swinging on a doorknob. Her twin brother, Nolan, is far more contemplative. He takes the time to line up a ball before he kicks it and carefully studies the fastest way to get down a playground slide. But they share one key thing in common: They both love to move.
I'm not trying to raise an Olympic gymnast or a future major leaguer. But in light of our nation's scary childhood obesity crisis–the rate more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5 and tripled for 6- to 11-year-olds since 1980–I want to instill in my kids a lasting love of physical activity.
In our screen-time world, it’s extra appealing to see your kid get fresh air and exercise, and to challenge herself to try new things. Studies show that the benefits of organized sports have a ripple effect throughout life: Athletic kids generally have a more positive body image, get better grades in middle school and high school, and are less likely to do drugs. “Even for younger kids, sports can teach lessons that can’t be learned in the classroom,” says Daniel Gould, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “Kids can become better communicators, develop a strong work ethic, and learn real teamwork.”
They also have to cope with failure. “There’s such a sense of determination and pride when kids try to score or even try out for a team. But if they don’t make it, they learn not to give up and they’ll just train harder the next time,” says Jenn Petito, a mom of three young athletes in Centerport, New York. “My kids have also made really great friends.” Indeed, the social aspect is a huge plus to playing.
“Sports provide an opportunity to develop the complete person—they help kids develop their physical body and also the character skills necessary for success in the real world,” says Lauren Gallagher, Ph.D., a school psychologist and cofounder of Sync It Up Sports, which helps kids and coaches navigate the youth-sports world.
But all these benefits don’t mean you need to sign your 18-month-old up for super mini munchkin soccer skills academy. Laying the groundwork for an athletic life is as easy as playing in your own backyard. “You want to help your young kids learn how to jump, throw, skip, and hop on one foot,” says Dr. Gould. “They can hone these skills by playing tag, kicking a ball, swinging a bat, even with just rough- and-tumble play, but none of it has to be in a structured environment.”
When your child is interested in joining a team, besides checking out programs, talk to parents of older kids in your area for honest advice. “It’s never too early to look for good coaching,” says Dr. Gould. The mission statement for leagues for kids ages 12 and under should emphasize fun and fundamentals, not keeping score.
Watch a practice to see how it’s structured and how coaches interact with the kids. Do they reward effort as much as outcome? Are they enthusiastic? You also want to make sure the kids aren’t standing in line or hovering around one ball—they should be active and engaged.
The sports scene has definitely changed in the past few decades, and you might not recognize some of the major players. Your best friend’s dad who volunteered to coach your soccer team may have been replaced by a fully paid trainer. Travel teams are starting younger and younger, and there’s no longer a basketball season and a baseball season—sports for kids are played all year round.
“Many parents believe that having their child start early and train with the best coaches year-round will help him maximize his chances of success,” says Brooke de Lench, executive director of MomsTEAM Institute, a youth-sports advocacy group, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports.
However, a sporty kid who hasn’t been on elite travel teams can still pick up a sport “later in life” and make her school team or a travel team. “If we see what we call a ‘coachable kid’ come to tryouts, and she’s got heart and hustle and gives us her all, we’ll take her over a kid who may have more skills but not a great attitude,” says Morgan Stanford, a middle- and high-school lacrosse coach on Long Island.
What does that mean if you’re contemplating super mini munchkins for your preschooler? If she wants to play, there’s no shame in starting kid sports sooner rather than later—just don’t feel like you have to go gangbusters, because there will be ample opportunities to do so.
Sports parenting isn’t any different from regular parenting. Just like some parents panic about getting their child into the right preschool so he can get an edge and go to Harvard, some youth-sports parents want their kid to make the right teams so he gets the full ride to Carolina. And businesses have cropped up to cater to this scramble. It’s called the “professionalization of youth sports,” and it affects every aspect of athletics. In fact, according to recent research, youth sports in the U.S. is a $15 billion market.
The path from peewee to pretty serious doesn’t take very long, and many parents and coaches overtrain young athletes. “Specialization” is the official term for focusing on only one sport year-round—something research has shown may be detrimental to young kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids play multiple sports and delay specializing (although gymnastics is an exception) until age 15 or 16—to avoid injuries and getting burned out too soon. When a child repeats the same movement day in and day out, it can put stress on muscles, strain tendons, and even interfere with growth.
As parents, it’s our job to keep perspective. Just because your kid is good enough to make the travel soccer team that costs $4,000 and practices three towns over doesn’t mean you have to let her try out. Colleges give way more academic scholarships than sports scholarships, so if you’re in it for the money, you might want to send her to the library instead of her fourth practice of the week, says Dr. Gould.
You’ll need to remember why you put your kid into sports in the first place. Was it to be an Olympian? How about a professional football player? Probably not. “Sports are something extra in life that should be a source of joy and fun,” says Dr. Gallagher. They’re also about learning to be competitive. Pretty much all sports inherently involve winning and losing, and it’s good to want to win.
Before you get in too deep, make a list of what you want your child to get out of the experience, and check in with those goals periodically: After practice, ask your daughter if she had fun. Ask what she learned. And watch—does she seem to be enjoying it? “If you tune in, your kids will let you know what they need and want,” says Dr. Gallagher.
Regardless of your young child's natural talent on the field or the court, the best thing you can do is introduce him to as many physical activities as possible. "One kid may enjoy playing tag while another prefers running after a ball. You never know what's going to make him happy," says pediatrician Gwenn O'Keeffe, M.D., the CEO of PediatricsNow.com. Our age-by-age guide will get your child ready for the field, diamond, court, pool, or track–anywhere but the sidelines.
Your child's first year is all about mastering new moves, from turning her head to turning your home upside down once she learns to creep, crawl, and eventually walk. "A baby makes tremendous advances in her physical skills and movements, and these will be the foundation of her athleticism as she gets older," says Dr. Graham.
Make a connection. Help your baby learn to interact with the world. "Ring a bell so she'll turn her head toward you," says Dr. O'Keeffe. And when she's starting to roll over, try talking or singing to give her an incentive to turn toward you.
Let him be free. Most babies spend lots of time in a stroller, swing, play yard, or car seat. "Your child needs a chance to let loose in order to master new movements, such as rolling over and pulling up," says Rhonda Clements, Ed.D., director of the Master of Arts in Teaching in Physical Education and Sport program at Manhattanville College, in Purchase, New York. Place your infant face up in a baby activity gym every day so he can reach for low-hanging objects. And don't overlook tummy-time opportunities: Babies need to get used to being on their belly (even if they don't like it) in order to develop crawling skills. During your baby's first few months he should have several five- to ten-minute sessions on his tummy every day, though it's fine if they wind up being shorter at first.
Build her balance. Once your baby can sit up, gently move her from side to side or lift her up and down to boost her sense of stability, suggests Jane Clark, Ph.D., dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, in College Park.
Try games. Hold up a soft pillow and let your baby kick against it, or put a bright toy just out of reach to coax him to crawl. Check out our exclusive video series at parents.com/playing-with-baby for more activities to get your child moving.
Once your child is mobile, he'll start to run, jump, throw, catch, kick, and grasp. But he may get frustrated easily or become bored within a few minutes. That's why you should focus on short activities that will help improve his agility.
Blow bubbles. What toddler doesn't love chasing them? And it's not just fun. When she tries to catch or pop bubbles, she's practicing her hand-eye coordination as well as her running and jumping skills.
Throw a colorful scarf in the air. As your child watches it float down toward the ground, he'll be developing the ability to track an object's movement, a skill that comes in handy in many sports, from soccer to baseball to tennis.
Have a ball. Kids this age are fascinated by the way balls move, so keep a variety handy (such as a beach ball, a kickball, and a small rubber ball). By playing with them, your child will get a sense of how they roll and bounce.
Let her walk on your bed. Stepping across an unstable surface, like a mattress, is a great way to improve balance. So is having her mimic a tripod by placing both hands on the floor and lifting one leg.
Act like an animal. Take turns pretending to be different creatures, and imitate how each one gets around: Try crawling like a kitty, swinging your arms like a chimp, and hopping like a bunny.
By age 3, children usually have greater confidence in their movements and strong opinions about what activities they want to do. Introduce your kid to different sports, and bring along a friend (a preschooler is more inclined to be active when she has good company).
Create an obstacle course. When hosting a playdate, clear some space in your basement or backyard, and stack objects to jump over or crawl through. Add stuffed animals or toys to run around and a few Hula-Hoops to walk through. Time how long it takes your child and a friend to finish, and challenge them to break the "course record."
Play balloon ball. Blow up a balloon partway and see whether your child can whack it with a junior racket (or just with his hand). He's probably not ready to hit a fuzzy yellow ball, but this exercise will improve his hand-eye coordination.
Set up target practice. Place a large basket or an empty garbage can on the floor, and have your child stand a few feet away. See whether she can toss a Nerf ball or a crumpled-up piece of paper into it. As her accuracy improves, have her take two steps back and try again.
Get a jump rope. Your child can't jump by himself yet, so think of some other fun games to play together. Make a circle with the rope and it becomes an imaginary puddle to leap over. Turn it into a straight line and have him jump over it side to side like a skier tackling moguls. Or see whether he can walk across it like a tightrope to test his balance.
Try a class. Noncompetitive programs in dance, gymnastics, and soccer provide structure and build basic skills. One class all kids should try: swimming. "It's never too early to get a child comfortable in the water, and by age 4 she may be able to float and start swimming on her own," says Dr. Clark.
Let him run. "Preschoolers love to chase people and try to get away, and these are great skills to develop for sports like basketball and soccer," says Dr. Graham. Play tag, have your child run away from "Mommy monster," or round up a group of his friends for some relay races.
By first grade, most children can gallop, skip, jump, throw, and catch, and their athletic interests are emerging. While it's fine to let your kid choose his favorite sport, experts say you should encourage him to try a variety of activities at this age. If he idolizes a superstar like LeBron James or Tom Brady, remind him that professional athletes do training beyond their main sport. Focus on fun more than performance, whether it's joining a flag-football league or just shagging pop-ups in the school yard.
Practice jumping. Teach your child to jump rope the easy way. Have him begin with it behind his body and then flip it over his head without jumping. Once he can do that, see whether he can hop over the rope and flip it around again. Keep going until he can jump a few times in a row without missing.
Do some drills. Set up a soccer ball about 10 feet from a net (or just use two nearby trees) and have your child try to score goals. Each time she's successful, have her take a few steps back. Or, if you're playing catch, start close to each other and move back until you reach the limits of her throwing range.
Sign up for a team. Check out a local recreational league if your child seems ready for competition. Keep in mind that there is a lot of variation in size and ability at this age, and it's a coach's job to make all of the players feel important. "The emphasis should be on letting every child have fun and participate, not whether the team wins or loses," says Bob Bigelow, a youth-sports reformer and author of Just Let the Kids Play. If your kid spends most of his time warming the bench, then the program is probably too competitive for him.
Encourage individuality. If your child is not a natural team player or recoils from competition, find out what types of exercise make her happy–whether it's playing hopscotch, dancing to her favorite singer, or even playing Wii U sports games–and use them to help her stay active. "The bottom line is that you want your child to keep moving and have fun doing it," says Dr. Graham. "The rest will come."
Every parent wants her kid to find a game that's perfect for his personality. How to make the call? Observe the way he plays and moves, and steer him accordingly, says Jordan Metzl, M.D., author of The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor's Complete Guide for Parents.
If your child gets along well with other kids, loves running around, and lets off steam by kicking whatever he can: Try soccer.
If your child dances around the living room, has good balance, and displays upper-body strength on the jungle gym: Try gymnastics.
If your child likes playing catch and using her toys as projectiles: Try baseball or softball.
If your child loves taking baths and doesn't panic when water gets in her eyes: Try swimming.
If your child is always hopping and skipping around and possesses good hand-eye coordination (he can pour his own juice without spilling, for example): Try tennis.
If your child is always up for bouncing a ball on the driveway, can toss her laundry into the hamper from several feet away, and is happy to be part of a team: Try basketball.
If your child slides across the clean kitchen floor without slipping and could play all day outside in cold weather: Try hockey.
If your child jumps on you when you walk through the door, likes to roughhouse with other kids, and doesn't mind wearing a helmet: Try football.
While every kid is different, physical milestones tend to follow this timeline.
Originally published in Parents magazine.