Ready, set, fun!

Ready, Set, Fun!

Funnel that preschool energy into a sport
– without pushing too hard

Story by Aniela Whah-Wills

The little uniforms, the tiny equipment and the squeals of excitement: It’s all part of the joys of enrolling your child in a sport. But, when is your tyke ready to hit the field? And what sport is best? For kids under five, it’s all about fun.

From soccer to Karate to gymnastics, the main goal of the game is to ensure that your kiddo is enjoying herself. You can start your child in any one of those sports as young as age 3, as long as your child is potty trained. Skill is not required. Listening is. At Anchorage Gymnastics, there’s tons of equipment for children to try. Administrator Rachel Gebauer says it’s awfully enticing for little ones: “They just want to go and explore everything, which is great, but we need them to be able to focus on simple directions. There’s time for exploring but there’s also time for listening because we don’t want them to get hurt.”

At age three, most children will not be athletic savants. They’re just learning the basics and experimenting with their gross motor skills. Pam Blizzard, program manager at Chugiak Youth Sports Association, says in youth soccer they focus on keeping the ball moving and avoid the complicated rules of play. She explains “We don’t want to penalize them for not being able to do something their little bodies probably can’t do anyway.” Blizzard says any child who can run and play is ready for a sport.

At Okamoto’s Karate, the Tiny Tiger class teaches 3 to 5 year olds the basics of Karate, while also instructing them in working with an authority figure, class participation and respect. Sensei Yoshihiro Okamoto, head instructor and owner, says a lot of children have an interest in taking a class after watching movies like Kung Fu Panda and The Karate Kid. He says it piques parents’ interests too, saying it’s a “better way to direct (a kid’s energy) than destroying something at home.” It also gives preschoolers confidence and a more individualized activity they can do without their parents, which is something that helps in the transition to preschool or kindergarten.

Funneling all that preschool energy into a sport is also a great way for kids to get exercise. It teaches them a life-long love of fitness. Blizzard says that means not focusing on competition, but instead on having fun. “With obesity rates and all the gaming devices, kids just need to be kids. They need to get out and play. They’ll want to play if they’re having fun.”

In gymnastics, children learn to stretch their muscles, along with learning cartwheels and forward rolls. “It helps with their sense of balance and being aware of their bodies,” says Gebauer. It’s also a safe environment to burn off energy. “When they join a sport, they get to interact with kids and just run.”

Social interaction is another crucial concept kids learn in youth sports. The idea of teamwork may not come easily for some. In soccer, says Blizzard, “we want to teach them the concept of working with others, and with some kids it’s as basic as, ‘This is my ball and I don’t want anyone to touch it’ and it can be really hard with 3, 4 and 5 year olds.”

Beyond exercise, sports can help kids manage aggression. Okamoto says students learn there’s a proper time and place for everything. He says kids “learn to handle confrontation by talking things out, versus punching or kicking.” Okamoto says in his nearly three decades of teaching karate, he’s never had kids become more aggressive, saying usually the opposite is true.

Now is not the time, youth sports leaders say, to set high expectations for your child. Sometimes that means parents need to back off. Blizzard says take the focus off winning. “Prepare them and talk about what they are going to be doing, stressing that they will meet new friends and have fun,” she suggests. “Emphasize participation over competition and education over performance.”

From teamwork to listening to a coach to getting exercise, the main goal is still to have fun. Gebauer puts it simply: “If they’re not having fun, don’t keep them in it.”