Your Toddler and Competitive Sports

Some parents push for structure, skills development Crystal Branta, associate professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, says preschool level is prime time for learning and developing motor skills such as throwing, catching, jumping and running, “But that doesn’t mean,” she adds, “doing drill after drill.” Among today’s adults, however, many want structure. After all, if they didn’t care about specific skills, they could just turn kids loose in the park. For them, structured sports gives their kids the chance to socialize with other kids, and get a leg up on skills seen as increasingly valuable. “I think par- ents understand that in school, kids are popular and valuable when they’re able to do sports,” she says.

Classes for 3-year-olds are easily found via local parks and recreation programs, as well as through some private programs and facilities. The American Youth Soccer Organization, a nationwide nonprofit group that sponsors soccer programs, knocked its starting age down to 4 years old from 5 years old in 2004. National executive director Rick Davis thinks 4-year-olds have the mental and physical capabilities to begin to learn soccer skills. And it’s not really soccer at that age anyway, he insists. “We’re introducing them to the sport in fun ways, from simple motor coordination things like walking around the ball to kicking and shooting and passing. If you were a soccer coach, you wouldn’t be sure you were seeing a soccer practice.”

Yet AYSO’s Under-Five program has an entire page of rules and guidelines on its Web site for three-on- three games, where it says, “The two goals of the pro- gram are to allow the players to enjoy the activities and to let the game be the teacher.” Headings include, “The Start of Play,” “The Kick-off,” “Ball In and Out of Play” and “Fouls and Other Stoppages.” Part of the decision to start kids at age 4, says Davis, came from parent demand.