Physical activity is crucial for kids. Not only is it one of the best ways to fight against America’s serious childhood obesity epidemic, but getting one or more hours of physical activity per day, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can help promote a lifetime of health and well-being.
Luckily, most kids have a natural urge to play — and signing them up for sports is a great way to harness all of that natural energy and transform it into something even greater.
“The importance of physical activity for children is undeniable, and frankly it’s negligent when children are not given the opportunity to engage in this invaluable resource in life,” says Michelle M. Miller, certified trainer and founder of My First Workout in Tallahassee, Florida.
We asked experts to weigh in with tips and advice around sports and kids and to provide suggestions for the best sports for kids of all ages.
How sports can benefit kids
From T-ball to gymnastics, organized kids sports can benefit children in all five key developmental areas: physical, emotional, social, cognitive and moral. Miller cites benefits that include:
- Improved strength.
- Improved self-esteem.
- Improved critical thinking skills.
- Improved self-discipline.
- An increased awareness of right and wrong.
How sports can provide a foundation for fitness
So where do you come in? When it comes to youth sports, parents are so much more than carpool drivers. It’s up to you to help your children choose not only age- and personality-appropriate sports, but to help set a foundation for fitness from a young age.
“Take very young children to playgrounds and let them play, and teach older children body weight and basic weight-training exercises and easy forms of cardiovascular activity, such as walking, swimming or riding a bike,” Miller says. “When this type of foundation is laid for a child, the chances of them wanting to take their fitness to the next level by joining a sports team is so much greater.”
Best sports for kids under 5
Most parents of preschool-aged children can confirm they have a seemingly endless supply of energy. They love to run, jump and play, but they’re still refining skills like hand-eye coordination and the ability to follow rules. Kids in this age group tend to benefit most from activities that help build fundamental gross motor skills.
For this age group, Miller also suggests leaning toward activities that:
- Are not overly structured, time-involved or complicated.
- Help build self-control, body awareness and self-confidence — skills that will come in handy if and when the child is ready for organized sports.
“These are the years parental coaching through encouragement, mental programming, support and leading by example become the foundation for a lifetime of activity and improve the chances that children will want to play a sport later on,” Miller says.
Some fun starter sports for children under the age of 5 that Miller recommends include:
“Swimming and biking can be taught by a parent at home, and once the few items needed are purchased, these can be the most inexpensive forms of physical activity preferably done on a daily basis,” Miller says, noting that parents must be confident in their own skills and safety before teaching their kids.
She also suggests community gymnastics and soccer leagues.
“The fundamental skills in these sports are not as complicated as other sports, which make them perfect picks for kids who are experiencing sports for the first time,” she says. “Mastering a new skill that is age-appropriate will enhance confidence and motivate them to keep going.”
Dr. Natasha Trentacosta, a pediatric and adult sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, recommends martial arts for young children.
“From a physical standpoint, any individual can learn the moves and advance at their own pace,” she says. “It fosters body control and awareness and improves movement quality. From a psychological standpoint, it encourages discipline, commitment and control.”
Rebekah Springs, a Portland, Oregon-based licensed marriage and family therapist, recommends activities like gymnastics for the preschool set.
“It provides even very young children with a sense of mastery and confidence in their body, and kids who are confident in their bodies also begin to become more confident in social skills, academics and planning ahead,” Springs says. “So it’s an all-around benefit!”
Whatever sport you choose for beginners, try to keep the pressure low. Springs cautions parents against expecting too much from children in their early years.
“At this age, your child may not be developmentally ready to enjoy organized sports,” she says. “So if they say they hate soccer, or spend T-ball picking flowers, don’t worry! This doesn’t mean your child isn’t into sports — they just may not be ready.”
Best sports for kids ages 5-12
Children’s physical abilities will continue to develop as they age, and so will their individual interests. At this stage, it’s a great idea to let them explore various activities while helping to guide them toward sports that are most suitable for their age, personality and abilities, as well as factors like your family’s time and budget.
“For school-age children, sports provide a physical outlet, a model for healthy competition and teamwork and a sense of mastery and identity,” Springs says.
It’s not uncommon for kids in this age range to get frustrated by a challenging sport and want to quit, which is why it’s so important to help them select activities that suit them. Choosing an activity that is inappropriate for their age or abilities may result in boredom or a loss of interest. Parents can help their kids stay engaged by guiding them to activities that they can feel successful doing.
Team sports are all popular in this age range, which may include:
For kids who may be more independent or introverted, look for sports like:
- Track and field.
- Martial arts.
- Horseback riding.
Best sports for teens
As your child advances and becomes more competitive, sports can become more costly and time-consuming for families — and this is where conversations about commitment level often come into play. More travel requirements and private lessons can quickly add to the average cost of the sport and increase the time commitment needed by the athlete and parents. But there are still great benefits to involvement in sports — like being attractive feature on college applications.
Some of the most expensive sports to play at a competitive level, with the costliest leagues often running in the winter season, include:
- Ice hockey.
Sports that require less equipment can be more budget-friendly and include:
- Track or cross-country.
Although older children may find themselves drawn to a select sport, Miller cautions against overuse injuries that can happen as a result of sports specialization.
“Overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students, and since 2000, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of serious shoulder and elbow injuries among youth baseball and softball players, according to Stop Sports Injuries,” Miller says. “Different sports challenge the body in different ways and ultimately produce a more well-rounded athlete. As long as multiple sports are contributing in a positive way to a child’s quality of life, I don’t see a need to limit involvement.”
However, as more demands are placed on the body through multiple sports, parents should remember that adequate rest and proper nutrition are essential to maintain peak performance and reduce the chances of injury.
“Proper balance should be the main focus at this time,” Miller says. “Sports should not be a job for kids, but engaging in no physical activity should not be tolerated either. Kids who are having fun and learning all the many life lessons from sports — without sports consuming the life of the players or the family — is just the right balance.”