Children's sports promote fitness, but not all children thrive in formal leagues. Help your child find the right sport and venue — school, recreation center or backyard.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Want to give your child a head start on lifelong fitness? Consider children's sports and other kid-friendly physical activities.

With your encouragement and support, chances are a few sports will spark your child's interest. Fan the flame by taking your child to local sporting events and sharing your own sports interests with your child.

Your child is likely to show natural preferences for certain sports or activities. Start there, keeping your child's age, maturity and abilities in mind.

Ages 2 to 5

Toddlers and preschoolers are beginning to master many basic movements, but they're too young for most organized sports. Toddlers who participate in organized sports typically don't gain any long-term advantage in terms of future sports performance.

At this age, unstructured free play is usually best. Try:

  • Running
  • Tumbling
  • Throwing
  • Catching
  • Swimming

Ages 6 to 9

As children get older, their vision, attention spans and transitional skills, such as throwing for distance, improve. They're also better able to follow directions.

Consider organized activities such as:

  • T-ball, softball or baseball
  • Running
  • Soccer
  • Gymnastics
  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Martial arts

Carefully supervised strength training is OK beginning at age 7 or 8 in kids who are motivated. Focus on proper technique and movement.

Ages 10 to 12

By this age, children have mature vision and the ability to understand and recall sports strategies. These children are typically ready to take on complex skill sports, such as football, basketball, hockey and volleyball. Keep in mind, however, that growth spurts caused by puberty can temporarily affect a child's coordination and balance.

Whatever sports your child participates in, ensure that he or she has a foundation of proper technique and movement. Coaches and sports professionals, such as golf and tennis pros, can be helpful resources.

Before allowing your child to participate in a contact sport, consider his or her age, maturity, and physical size. Are the physical contact, aggressiveness and competition involved developmentally appropriate for your child? Will your child enjoy it?

Because children enter puberty at different ages, there can be dramatic physical differences among children of the same sex — particularly boys. Children competing against others who are more physically mature might be at increased risk of injury.

When you're comparing sports, consider:

  • How much will your child enjoy the activity?
  • Does the sport emphasize age-appropriate skill development?
  • Will there be opportunities for each child to participate?

Avoid encouraging early specialization in a single sport. Focusing on one sport could prevent your child from testing his or her skills and experiencing other enjoyable sports. Sports specialization can also lead to stress and burnout.

As your child tries various sports, stay involved. Consider:

  • Safety. Does the coach require that players follow the rules and use proper safety equipment? Do players take time to warm up and cool down before and after each practice or event? In hot weather, does the coach pay attention to hydration, humidity and temperature? Are children taught proper movement and body positioning? Is the coach attentive to the prevention and recognition of concussions?
  • Coaching style. Attend practices or talk to the coach to determine his or her attitude toward the game. How much does each child play and how is playing time determined? If a coach consistently yells at the children or lets only the most skilled players into the game, your child might become discouraged. Beware of a win-at-all-costs attitude.

Overall, be positive and encouraging. Emphasize effort, improvement and enjoyment over winning or personal performance. Attend events and practices as your schedule allows, and act as a good model of sportsmanship yourself.

Of course, organized athletics aren't the only option for fitness. If your child isn't interested in sports, find other physical activities — especially ones that are sustainable over a lifetime. Take family bike rides, check out local hiking trails or visit indoor climbing walls. Encourage active time with friends, such as jumping rope or playing tag. You can even encourage fitness through video games that involve dancing, virtual sports or other types of movement.

Whether your child swims, runs track or bikes around the neighborhood, keep your eye on the long-term goal — a lifetime of physical activity.

Aug. 09, 2016