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Helping your child choose the right sport can play into a lifetime of fun and fitness. Because every child develops at a different rate, the only rule is to wait until your child expresses an interest in a sport and has the skills needed to successfully participate, says Michael Gray, professor of physical education and director of the human performance lab at Northern Kentucky University. You should also consider whether your child would benefit from a team sport, where the success of the group is independent of one player's performance, or an individual sport that focuses on one child's performance.
Another thing to keep in mind: The younger the child, the more important good coaching and parental involvement are, says Dr. Douglas McKehe, sports medicine director of the National Institute for Fitness and Sport in Indianapolis. In advance of the first practice, meet the coach and ask him about his philosophy and background. He should have experience in the sport and stress having fun over winning. Finally, consider which sport would be most appropriate for your child's body type. If your family members tend to be petite, your child probably shouldn't try to be a linebacker. "Remember that the goal is to get children through adolescence with intact knees and intact brains," says Dr. William Roberts, a family physician and sports medicine director for MinnHealth in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.
Get your child geared up for an enjoyable -- and safe -- season with these age-by-age guidelines for popular sports. --Erica Vonderheid
|Sport||Best age to start||What kids need to know||What kids will learn|
|Swimming||Newborn to toddler for basic swim classes. 5 or 6 years for competitive swimming.||A child needs to know a few basic swimming strokes to compete in swim meets.||Swimming provides cardiovascular exercise without putting any stress on a child's bones. Swimmers also develop endurance and self-discipline.|
|Gymnas-tics||2 or 3 year-olds can take basic movement classes.||A child must have control of her body and be able to do basic moves such as forward rolls.||Any child at any age can benefit. Gymnasts learn gross motor skills, balance, flexibility and strength.|
|T-Ball||3 or 4 years||A player needs to know how to swing a bat and catch a ball.||Players gain confidence by making contact with the ball and have fun running around the field with their friends.|
|Soccer||5 or 6 years for team competition, but children can play soccer-like games as young as 3 years.||A child must know how to run and kick, how to play as a team and move the ball up the field||Kids learn teamwork and develop their attention span.|
|5 or 6 years||A child should be able to complete a throwing motion.||Young athletes learn how to track a moving object with their eyes and improve hand-eye coordination.|
|Basketball||7 or 8 years||A player needs to be able to dribble, shoot and pass a ball.||Children learn about teamwork and precision of their movements.|
|7 or 8 years||A child needs to skate well for ice hockey. A field hockey player needs endurance and the ability to hit the ball consistently.||Players learn balance (in ice hockey), teamwork and how to track an object with their eyes.|
|Tennis||8 or 9 years||A player needs to be able to swing a racket, which is similar to throwing a ball. In addition, complex rules make tennis a difficult sport to learn.||Children develop hand-eye coordination.|
|Football||10 to 12 year-olds can join in non-tackle games, but kids should be 13 or 14 years old for tackle games.||Experts advise waiting until children are older to prevent injury to growing bones and muscles. A football player needs to be able to throw and catch a ball.||Athletes learn about teamwork and discipline.|
|Track/Cross Country||Junior high school or 12 or 13 years.||Kids need endurance to run long distances.||Runners learn mental discipline while getting cardiovascular exercise.|