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Children and sports: Choices for all ages
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Want to give your children a head start on lifelong fitness — and cut their risk of being overweight? One option may be to head to the town recreation center and sign them up for sports.

Of course, it's not always that simple. Many communities offer limited choices for children's sports and activities. And organized sports aren't right for every child — certainly not for every age.

If you encourage your child and set an example yourself, though, chances are a few sports will spark his or her interest. Fan the flame by taking your child to local sporting events and explaining how different games are played. Then, when the time is right, provide opportunities for your child to try out equipment and play informally with other children.

Most of all, if you like playing particular sports, share your pleasure and skill with your children. Show them that effort and practice are their own rewards, and that you can get great satisfaction from playing without even wanting to be the best.

What are age-appropriate activities?

Regardless of your child's age, he or she will show some natural preferences. Some children love the water from the first splash, while others react with fear. Some get a charge out of rough-and-tumble games; others dislike the shoves and bumps. You may have been the star of your football team, but your child may prefer dancing, and that's just fine.

Children don't need organized athletics to develop athletic skills or to get physical activity. "A healthy lifestyle doesn't have to include sports," says Edward Laskowski, M.D., co-director of the Sports Medicine Clinic at Mayo Clinic, Rochester Minn. "It's more important that your child is involved in some sort of physical activity, whether it's hiking and biking with the family or playing pickup baseball or basketball with the neighborhood kids."

Every child develops at a different rate. It's best to work within your child's maturity and skill level.

Ages 2 to 3
Very young kids are beginning to master many basic movements — running, catching, jumping — and they're too young for most types of structured exercise. Try:

  • Running and walking, in a yard or playground
  • Swinging on a yard or playground set
  • Supervised water play
  • Toddler gymnastics classes led by professionals
  • Tumbling

Ages 4 to 6

  • Dancing
  • Games such as hopscotch or tag
  • Jumping rope
  • Playing catch with a lightweight ball
  • Riding a tricycle or a bike with training wheels

After age 6, children's motor skills and sense of safety improve. Your child may also be ready for team sports.

Ages 7 to 10

  • Baseball
  • Gymnastics
  • Soccer
  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Biking

Age 10 and up

  • Carefully supervised weight training
  • Organized team sports
  • Rowing
  • Running and track and field events
  • Softball

When it comes to organized sports, make sure your child really wants to play. Never force a child to participate or join a team. Also consider your child's schedule. Children who are already signed up for music lessons and the school play may feel overwhelmed if athletics are added to the mix.

Practical matters

If you want to get your child involved in sports, consider how sports differ, including the:

  • Amount and cost of equipment
  • Amount of physical contact
  • Emphasis on individual skill
  • Emphasis on team performance
  • Size of the team
  • Opportunity for each child to participate

If several sports are available in your community, allow your child to sample a range of activities. Younger children may benefit from exploring several options before settling on one or two.

"The more that children can try different sports and activities and find something they're good at doing, the more they'll enjoy the activity," says Dr. Laskowski.

Try team sports such as softball and soccer, as well as individual sports such as tennis, running and golf. Observe as you go. Is your child comfortable with contact sports? Does he or she have the hand-eye coordination to compete in certain sports that use a ball?

Assessing youth sports

To gauge whether your child is in good hands, consider these points.

Quality of coaching
Look first for an emphasis on safety and inclusive participation. Does the coach require that players follow the rules and use the proper safety equipment? Do only the best players play? Is the fitness or conditioning coach working with your child certified and sensitive to the fact that your child is not fully physically mature? Observe instructions. Children should be taught proper movement and body positioning to avoid injuries.

Also consider a coach's attitude toward the game. If a coach consistently yells at an umpire or the children or lets only the most skilled players into the game, your child may become discouraged. Get to know the coach and, if possible, talk to the coach's former team members about their experiences.

Once children get to be 11 or 12 years old, they may be ready for a greater emphasis on competition and winning. "But a win-at-all-costs attitude drives many children away from sports," says Dr. Laskowski.

Team assignments
Are the children in your child's sport grouped into teams simply by age, which can increase risk of injury? Or are they grouped according to physical maturity and skill? Do they take time to warm up and cool down before and after each practice or event? How the organization assigns teams and emphasizes warm-ups and cool-downs may serve as an indication of the organization's interest in injury prevention.

Your role: Sit back and watch

Overall, be positive and encouraging. Emphasize effort and improvement over winning or personal performance.

Attend events and practices as your schedule allows, and act as a good model of sportsmanship yourself. Above all, keep your child's sport in perspective.

If your child decides to quit a sport or specific activity, look for signs of stress that seem tied to sports or overtraining. Your child can take up the same or another sport later, or build fitness through other activities, such as martial arts or dance.

Whether your child swims, runs track or plays frisbee, keep your eye on the long-term goal — encouraging your child to be a fit, healthy and happy adult.

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  • September 07, 2006

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