When my 4-year-old son played on his first T-Ball team, I recall that one of the parents compared it to "herding cats." Beyond our own entertainment, we wondered how much the children gained from delving into sports so young.
Not every child wants or needs an early introduction to sports. But consider the benefits. Sports teams and camps offer a healthy way to channel children's boundless energy. That crucial life skill, "teambuilding," is best taught to children playing on some sort of team. And certain sports, like swimming, are worth learning for safety reasons.
Given the upside, the keyword that parents of young ones need to remember is fun. Talent is not an issue yet; rather, it's important to make sure the experience is enjoyable.
In the Pee Wee Soccer program offered by the Kirkland Boys and Girls Club, children learn to dribble the ball by playing "sharks and minnows." The kids believe they are playing a game of tag, rather than honing an athletic skill, says Stephanie Davidson, the club's Athletic Director.
Lori Schumacher, a coach for various YMCA youth teams in Seattle, says she finds that even young children get better at listening as they gain more sports experience. Schumacher says it is normal for some kids to become distracted after half an hour of practice. And while it might annoy mom and dad to see their little baseball player drawing circles in the infield dirt, she says parents should not immediately give up. Some who bring their 5-year-olds back for an activity they started a year ago, remark at the amazing difference one year makes.
So how do you decide which activities to introduce to your children? Kids may be especially attracted to sports played by an older sibling or friend. Alternatively, a parent could show a child a picture of other kids playing that sport, either from the program's brochure, a magazine or book.
Many organizations offer sampler programs that introduce children to several sports. Mercer Island's Parks and Recreation Department, for example, added its "Wild Wacky Week" class this summer, a week of basketball, track and soccer. Parents could get kids involved without having to commit to a single sport for an entire season or camp session.
Ideally, the child would love the activity so much that he or she would participate enthusiastically for the entire practice. In reality, there are times a parent may do well to offer an incentive for a good session, such as going out for ice cream or taking a trip to a favorite playground.
Seattle parent Christine Leahy found that gentle persuasion worked for her 3-year-old daughter, Katharine, who used to scream in the swimming pool when her face got wet. Leahy encouraged her daughter to continue the lessons, and Katharine now looks forward to pool visits, even voluntarily dunking her head underwater.
That said, there are times when the experience is not clicking for a child. Four- year-old Evan Hartley hated T-Ball practice. His mother found him "totally bored, wanting only to do what he normally does at the park, which is go to the playground." Julie Hartley struggled with the decision about whether to keep Evan on the team. "We thought about taking a stand, but then thought, 'Why go that far?'" He did quit early in the season and now, one year later, the Hartleys are pleased they did not push their son. Evan picks up the baseball bat and ball at home for casual family fun.
Pictures like those of a toddler-aged Tiger Woods swinging a club may drive some parents to enroll young kids in sports. But, coaches report, parents of this young set are usually involved for the right reasons. "At this age, there isn't the competitiveness yet, with the kids or parents," Schumacher says. "The kids are so innocent. They just want to play."
Hilary Benson lives in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in ParentMap and Metropolitan Living magazine. She has also reported for KING-5 TV