Children in American are being criticized for leading a sedentary lifestyle brought on by “vegging” out on too much TV and computer-game playing. This lifestyle can later lead to weight problems, cardiac disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Developing healthy habits early in life is essential in promoting a healthy lifestyle further in adulthood. The child’s interests and enthusiasm for sports participation should be considered when the parents choose activities for him.
Many sports, such as swimming and tennis, can be continued into adulthood as a skill and ones that are constantly improved upon. I was recently asked if a four-year-old female was too young to participate on a swim team. One must consider the fitness needs as well as developmental and psychological aspects of children in this age group. It is not clearly determined what the activity and fitness needs of children in this age group are. The National Child and Youth Fitness Study, which has developed norms of fitness for school-aged children, has not developed such standards for children under age six years. Nevertheless, physical activity is an inherent part of every preschooler’s day and is a crucial part of his growth and normal development.
During a child’s preschool years, a child’s motor activity and acquisition of motor skills is developed in a rather predetermined pattern and rate. It has not been shown that a child’s motor proficiency or his innate athletic ability can be altered or accelerated by placing him in early-organized sports. It is a child’s lack of maturity, not lack of coordination, which limits a child’s ability to perform certain tasks such as throwing or catching a ball, or running and jumping. It is important that a child learn in a noncompetitive, supportive environment where he can grow and experiment with his newly developed skills. Specific tasks can be honed only after the basic level of motor development is reached.
Determining whether a child is ready to participate in organized sports depends on a few factors. One needs to evaluate whether his motor skills are advanced enough to participate, or whether he is cognitively ready to interact with his peers and follow the directions of his coach. Does he understand the “bigger picture” of his sport, and does he WANT to participate?
It is important to remember that the level of preschooler’s involvement in a particular sport needs to be geared to the young child’s developmental level. Practice sessions should be FUN, emphasizing visual rather than verbal cues. Coaches need to demonstrate a high level of enthusiasm, and encourage peer participation, fun, and a non-competitive atmosphere. As the child matures, rigorous repetitive exercises, drills, and competition can be introduced as the child begins to understand the overall nature of his sport.
The most important aspect of a youngster’s participation in a sport is to help him develop a love of physical activity, so that he can develop and enjoy skills continuing into adulthood.