Being active is a huge component in lifelong wellness. As adults, we know we feel good when we are active and eat right. Without question, we want the same for our children and we want these habits to stay with them for life! How do we do that?

First it’s important to understand that when it comes to physical activity, children are unique – they are not small adults. Children should experience a much different approach to sports skills than teens or adults because their developmental needs are entirely different. If we go about this the right way and meet the needs of young children, our kids are more likely to be active throughout life!

Here are a four key points to keep in mind when you think about sports and physical activity programs for your young child:

1.  Let kids be kids.
Let’s be honest. With Saturday morning soccer games, t-ball, or ballet classes, it can be difficult to find general recreational/sport activities for kids that develop a broad range of skills. Sometimes we feel like we have only a few choices to get our kids active and we have to lock them into a specific sport from the age of three! This, however, is not the ideal approach for young children.

Child development professionals and physical educators recommend that “general” sport training in early childhood is best for athletic skill development, general fitness and a reduced risk of childhood obesity.

Again, children are not small adults. Children have unique development needs and abilities.  Too often, adults design child athletic programs similar to adult programs, and according to the goals and abilities of adults.  It is important to look for sport programs that are designed specifically to meet the physical, social and emotional needs of children.

2.  Build a foundation of skills for the future.
When we get our young children involved in a competitive sport, we see that the coaches  often teach and practice game-specific skills more than general athletic skills after all game-specific skills are the ones that determine which team wins.  We as parents must realize that general athletic skills, such as jumping, landing, kicking, throwing, twisting or hopping lay a foundation for becoming a successful athlete in the future.  We need to look at a child’s long-term development not their short-term success!

When we don’t give our kids the “basics” mentioned above. We run the risk stunting the development of a young athlete and putting a cap on their potential to succeed at other sports later in life. We endanger long-term athletic development by premature specialization, high intensity training, or too many competitions. We may also begin to see overuse injuries from being in a sport with the same repetitive motions, rather than giving kids overall movement education and motor skill development.

More important than winning competitions, a child’s early sport experiences should teach them critical skills necessary for movement success throughout life. Engage your child in activities that focus on total skill development and it will prepare them for future success in any sport.

3.  Make it fun!!!
Have you ever stood on the sidelines of a pee-wee football game or recreational soccer league and heard the coaches yelling (and maybe a parent or two) at the children on the field? It’s possible these small children already had 2 or 3 days of practice that week. And now, they are excited to finally PLAY a game. But, they find themselves confused, scared, and if you look closely you see self-confidence shattering. That’s not what fun looks like.

The importance of fun is often neglected or misunderstood in youth sports.  It is amazing how much better a child can learn something if they have fun doing it.  Emotions are important to learning and motivation; so the more fun, the more learning takes place and the more a child will want to return to the activity!  “Fun” can be defined as a balanced combination of skill and challenge that provides a deep feeling of inner satisfaction and a boom in self-confidence. Quality activity programs for young children provide this critical balance of learning and fun at every age.

4.  Be safe!
Children learn best and feel most comfortable when they feel safe. A safe atmosphere for being active allows kids to learn better, feel successful, of course, have fun.  And safety goes beyond just physical safety. We must also watch out for a child’s emotional and social safety both are just as important to success.

Emotional and social safety are nurtured in an atmosphere where there is freedom to learn at one’s own pace.  Children all learn differently and at a different rate than other children their age. It is important to look for activities and programs that help children learn at their individual pace without comparison or competition with others.

When you consider these four points, it is clear that general, non-structured recreational play is an important time to develop motor skills and to help ensure an athletic and healthy future.  This unstructured play time should be part of every child’s day – at recess, before school, and after school.

In reality, playing outside with friends might be more beneficial for children than any organized activity or sport out there!  As parents, we can help our children become active for life by getting them involved in skill development programs and also promoting playtime learning that is fun and prepares them for an active future!

Excerpts taken from Athletic Business Magazine, November 2006, “Youth Sports”, written by Tommi Paavola.

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SAFbaby’s Health Expert Adviser Doreen Bolhuis

Doreen Bolhuis is the President/CEO of Gymco Inc., a multi-sport facility for children in its 31st year of operation in Grand Rapids, MI.  Doreen is the creator of Gymtrix, an innovative DVD series to teach physical literacy for babies – 10 yrs.  She is a co-founder and partner of Motion Evolution, a licensed national fitness and physical literacy program for children.  Doreen’s passion is advocating healthy lifestyles and fighting obesity by empowering parents to create active kids from infancy.

Doreen holds a B.S. degree in Physical Education, Health and Recreation.  She has over 35 years experience teaching locally, nationally and internationally and is currently an adjunct professor for Aquinas College in the department of Health and Physical Education.  Doreen has appeared in local, national and international media (CNN, The Today Show, Good Morning America, The N.Y. Times) as a guest expert in Physical Literacy.  Doreen is a former elite level gymnastics coach and member of the Junior Olympic Committee for USA Gymnastics.