Should My Child Play a Sport?
Expert advice for choosing the right activity for your child
Extracurricular activities, when balanced with open-ended, free-play time, can enhance and enrich a child’s life. Choosing the right activity for your child depends on a number of factors, including age; emotional and social development; your child’s abilities and interests; and the chance that the experiences will be successful, positive and rewarding.
Children Younger Than Age 6
When thinking about appropriate activities for young children, it helps to think about their current phase of development and what they are working toward mastering. Young children are learning to care for themselves, follow directions and self-regulate (develop self-control). Children under age 6 tend to be less group-oriented. While they are learning about being a part of a group in their family — as well as their daycare, preschool or kindergarten class — they have not yet fully developed the ability to put their needs and wishes to the side, or at least delay them, for the sake of the group. To illustrate this point, imagine trying to organize a group of toddlers to collaborate as a team on a soccer field. This effort would more likely result in 11 individual teams, rather than one cohesive group.
Extracurricular activities that focus on individualized skill-building and self-regulation, such as swimming, Taekwondo or gymnastics, are great ways to help young children try new experiences and develop gross motor strength, as well as self-control and attention to directions. If a preschool- or kindergarten-aged child seems emotionally ready to take lessons in this type of setting, without a parent’s direct support, adding activities once or twice a week can provide fun and rewarding experiences.
Children Ages 6 and Older
Children become more group-oriented as they grow older, which is why team sports become so popular. Children ages 6 and older begin to be able to delay their individual wishes for the sake of their team, and can think about and consider the group’s goals over their own. Depending on your child’s interests, he or she may wish to continue to develop individual skills in a sport such as gymnastics, but he or she may also wish to add a sport that has a group orientation in order to feel like a member of a greater whole. This has both social and cultural significance.
If your child is not interested in sports, there are many other opportunities to achieve this sense of group inclusion. Consider a scouting organization, band or orchestra, or clubs that work toward a common goal.
Balance of Activities
While parents have the task of exposing their children to new experiences and ensuring that they are not becoming hyper-focused on only one area, it’s equally important to consider the child’s wishes about how many and which activities feel right. Children of all ages benefit when there is a balance between their scheduled life and downtime at home. Open-ended free play is an important outlet that helps children develop creativity, problem-solving skills, reasoning and focus.
Chance of Success
A final determining factor when choosing any activity or experience for your child is whether you believe the outcome will be positive and successful. If your school-aged child is not emotionally ready for a team sport, putting him or her on a team will likely delay his or her readiness rather than force your child to rise to the occasion. Consider choosing activities that your child feels will be successful. Building upon successes, as your child is ready and able, will help support his or her overall development.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.