July 29, 2011 -- Gone are the days of sandbox games and duck, duck, goose -- many young kids these days are gearing up to play soccer, basketball and football, even though they've only recently mastered the coordination needed to run a straight line.
Though at an age where attention spans are fleeting and coordination hit or miss, parents throughout the nation have signed up their tots up for programs that teach them how to dribble a basketball, shoot a goal and make a pass to a teammate -- or at least, attempt to do these things.
Places like the Little Gym, Beginners Edge Sports Training and Lil' Kickers enroll kids as young as 4 months old in programs aimed at increasing mobility and coordination, with the ultimate goal of teaching them specific sports skills and scrimmaging against one another. Though most of these facilities stick to a noncompetitive, everyone's-a-winner" spirit, many doctors fear that in their efforts to produce super-athletic children, these programs might overtaxing kids, both physically and emotionally.
"When kids are 3, 4, and 5, it's important for them to develop the fundamental elements of how we move and coordination," says Dr. Ed Laskowski, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center. "That's why free play is great, because kids move in all different ways and learn balance and stability. When you slot them into training specific motions at such a young age, they might not be getting as much variety in their play," he says.
The rules, structure and independent thinking required for sports may also not be developmentally suitable for kids younger that 5, mental health experts say.
"During the toddler phase, 2- and 3-year-olds are very egocentric. They are not ready to master sharing, taking turns and delayed gratification, so to put [them] on a sports team is to invite unnecessary stress and conflict," says Fran Walfish, a family psychotherapist and author in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Proponents of toddler sports and pre-sport programs say that when designed correctly, these classes can be fun, challenging, and teach children coordination.
There is also the simpler argument of keeping youngsters active: In an age in which kids get hooked on video and computer games, and childhood obesity is on the rise, how can getting them running around with other kids be a bad thing? Add in that many public schools and daycare centers have had to cut physical education and sports activities because of tight budgets, and the draw for parents in signing their kids up for super pee wee leagues becomes obvious.
"Sports today are competing with technology, so let's get them on the fields," says Len Saunders, mother, author, coach and phys ed teacher. "As long as the sport is not being rammed down the kids' throats, it really is not harmful."
Among the medical experts who are behind early sports programs, the emphasis is on doing it right: Namely, foster a noncompetitive atmosphere and use tailor-made equipment and exercises that are appropriate for each age level.
Coordination, communication and emotional maturity change so rapidly and vary so greatly from child to child that trying to get a group of 3-year-olds to hold down a game of soccer may prove futile and frustrating for kids and coaches alike, Laskowski says.
Tee-Ball for Tots and Other Pee-Wee Adventures
Beginners Edge Sports Training, a nonleague sports program that offers classes in athletics in and around Phoenix to kids as young as 18 months, breaks sports down into age-appropriate tasks. Learning how to dribble a soccer ball may be practiced by using a balloon, which moves slow enough for 2-year-olds to follow it, says BEST's owner Mitch Goldberg.
Smaller balls, squishy balls and balloons are all used as a "training wheels" version of soccer, volleyball, football and basketball until each child masters the skills to move up to the real game.
"Putting a bat in a 2-year-old's hands, that is something that we do, but mostly we're running through exercises that more generally improve hand-eye, eye-foot coordination," he says. "Teaching a 2-year-old anything is fantastically difficult."
"Ridiculous as it may seem," they start scrimmages at age 3, though there is no score kept, which works out, because a lot of the players can't count so well anyway.
While BEST will likely not turn toddlers into nascent sports pros, Goldberg says, "We've gotten feedback that the kids go on and have an edge when they start in league sports at age 6, but I can't really answer to whether the program makes kids better athletes," he says.
But the kids have fun along the way, he says.