Last night we were working on summer activity signups (we’re scheduling lots of sailing classes), and I got a call from a friend who wanted some advice about age appropriate sports. She asked: At what age should my kids be playing which sports?

It’s a great question, and it reminded me of some wonderful advice that my sister-in-law shared years ago. Megan is a life-long athlete and coach with lots of kids herself. 

This is what Megan advises.

I have been interested in sports for most of my life. I found out in middle school that I was good at running — I enjoyed running and competing and continued to do it through high school and college. I had been involved in running for so long and loved it so much that I didn’t want it to be over once college was done. And I was lucky, I got a job as a track and cross country coach for the local high school where I attended college. I loved it. When we finished college and moved to California I got a job at the YMCA teaching the youth sport classes. I am now trying to get back into shape so that I can compete again. My goal is to compete in a Triathlon in May.

I have taught and coached sports to children of all ages ranging from 18 months to High School. When I’m teaching sport classes the biggest question parents asked was, “When is my child ready for…?” Sometimes the question came from parents wanting to put their kids in a higher age class in an attempt to advance their skills more quickly. In my opinion that didn’t always work out best for the child. Here are a few age appropriate suggestions involving sports:

Age Appropriate Sports for 18 months to 3 years

I taught a mommy and me class for kids this age. It was a mini-gym class so it involved “circle time” where we would sing a variety of songs. The songs ranged from the ones we all know like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, to more involved jumping around songs. Then the kids along with their moms would do an activity that worked on different skills, like hand eye coordination or colors, etc. This type of class is perfect for 2 year olds. The 18 month kids mostly still played on their own. By the time they hit 3 they were ready to move on to a different kind of class.

Age Appropriate Sports for 3 to 5 year olds

This was the next age group I taught. There were 3 different classes — soccer, t-ball, and basketball. It was an indoor class which is good for this age. 3 to 5 year olds are distracted much more easily outside, and it is harder to get their attention. 3 year olds are still not into a lot of structure, and are not good at lining up yet. So for 3 years olds, look for classes that focus on the fun side of the sport and not learning rules and technique. Make sure that the teacher is flexible with different ages, ask if you can sit in and watch a class.

Or. Go ahead and wait a year and take your 3 year old to a park and kick the ball there with them. This is just as effective and at this age, your child will respond better to you than a stranger.

4 and 5 year olds do a lot better with following directions, and are just plain older so it is easier for them to do more things. 4 years old is a great time to start your child in a sport class. Make sure you like the teacher, and your child does too.

Age Appropriate Sports for 6 to 8 year olds

When I taught this age group I learned that within those 2 years is a big ability gap. I had to change teaching styles depending on the age that I had most of. Kids in this age range are also a lot more rambunctious than the younger classes. This is a time when you can really teach the kids the game. They understand things better and are able to play the game as opposed to just learning skills. I always had the beginning of class dedicated to working on skills, then the last half we were able to play the game. The game was their favorite part. When I had older kids I could let them play, and just be a referee. If the kids were a little younger I had to teach while they played.

6 to 8 years old is a good time to sign up for leagues. Find a league that will allow each child a chance to play and do your best to be a part of it. Often, leagues will want volunteers for the team coaches. Step up and try it out — your kids will have more fun if you are involved. If you are looking for a class that will help their technique, find one that is full of kids the same age.

If you want your girls to be involved in sports make sure there are other girls in the classes. Girls this age typically don’t want to have a boy as a partner. Also girls tend to respond much more emotionally when the game isn’t going their way. Make sure that the teacher handles those situations well. Those emotional scenes are times that could scare your girls away from sports. You don’t want someone to smash their self esteem — at this age it’s great if they think they are awesome at everything.

Age Appropriate Sports for 9-14 year olds

This age group I have less experience with than the rest. What I do know is that this is when a kid should really start exploring a variety of different sports. This is when they will find what they are good at, and what they like. Middle School is a fragile time for all kids. They want to please people, and are very impressionable, and are very much influenced by their peers. I feel that this is not the appropriate time to do year round sports, of the same sport. They can very easily get burned out. This is the time that I got involved in sports when I was a kid. I remember wanting to do my best because it made my coaches and my parents happy.

Once they get into middle school they can usually join teams at school. Like I said before, this is the time for them to try lots of sports — and learn about good sportsmanship. Good sportsmanship can be a difficult concept for kids and it can’t be taught in a day, but it is as important as any athletic skill they’ll learn. One thing that worked for me as a coach was goal setting with the kids. You could help your kids make athletic goals that are realistic, and help them understand what it takes to accomplish them. At this age the biggest thing that you can do for your kids is support their choices in sports, and encourage them not to give up.

Age Appropriate Sports for High School

This is a great age to coach. It was my favorite. The kids are still very impressionable and thrive on doing well and getting acknowledged for their accomplishments. For their first two years in high school it is still good to try all different sports. When I coached track we encouraged the kids to try as many events as they wanted. Once your child is a junior in high school they should know what they are good at. At this age it is good to specialize in one or two sports.

As a parent of a high school athlete, the best thing you can do is support them and attend their games or meets whenever possible. My parents were not able to make it to a lot of meets. But when they did I performed a lot better, mostly because I could hear my dad cheering over everyone else.

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Thank you so much, Megan. This is super helpful.

Your turn, Friends. What has been your experience introducing sports at different ages? Have you seen patterns among your kids? Or has each one been wildly different?

And did you participate in sports a lot as a kid? My parents enrolled me in softball from about age 8. I participated for several years, though it wasn’t my favorite. But the Hershey Track Meets starting in 3rd grade? I LOVED them, and continued loving track & field through high school. I was also in dance classes almost my entire childhood.

 


Credits: Written by Megan Stanley. A version of this article was originally published on Design Mom in 2008.