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.