These days you can sign up your toddler for soccer, swimming, gymnastics, karate, dance, even rugby (yes, there are rugby classes for 3-year-olds—check outlilruggers.com). But should you? Allston Stubbs, M.D., an orthopedist at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, NC, says he's seeing more adolescents and preteens with serious overuse injuries than ever before. “They're coming in with major shoulder, knee, and hip problems, including pulled or torn ACLs. And it's in large part due to the fact that kids are starting sports at very young ages when their bones are still developing.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3.5 million kids under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries each year, and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine reports that in just the past ten years, there's been a fivefold increase in the number of serious shoulder and elbow injuries among youth baseball and softball players. “Kids are starting sports too young,” says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise.
While some argue that it's never too early to get kids active and involved in athletics, most experts believe that the focus should be on general movement and play, not learning specific sports skills. What's important is that kids learn to “play smart,” as coaches say, so they're not sitting in the orthopedist's office at age 10. Here are tips to keep your toddlers and preschoolers active, healthy, and injury-free:
Stay away from competition. Most toddler sports “teams” are just kiddie classes with jerseys, and that's a good thing. In fact, until about the age of 7 or 8, competition can be stressful for kids and turn them off of sports forever. The focus should simply be on fun, with no winners or losers or right way or wrong way at this age.
Be well-rounded. If you're grooming your preschooler to be the next Venus Williams or Kim Clijsters, you're putting her at risk. “Specializing in one sport from a young age, in hopes of becoming a star player, is what contributes to overuse injuries,” says Dr. Stubbs. Let your child try a variety of activities that allow her to use her body in different ways. So if you did a baby-and-me swimming class in the summer, sign her up for a gymnastics or soccer program in the winter.
Take time off. While variety is important, your child doesn't always need to be enrolled in something. “Young kids need to rest their bodies, so remember to give them a season or two off every year,” says Dr. Stubbs. If you love the structure that a class provides, try art or music for a semester instead.
Don't feel pressure. Though you may worry that kids in soccer programs or karate classes will have an advantage over your class-shy child, you shouldn't. “Organized programs offer no edge at these young ages,” says Brooke de Lench, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports. “Studies have shown that kids who take sports and exercise classes as preschoolers are no more likely to be involved in high school sports than kids who don't.” In fact, free play (at the playground, in the backyard or basement with a ball) may be even more beneficial, she says.
Bottom line: If you and your child have fun at peewee baseball, go for it (in moderation). If not, don't force the issue.