How to Help Little Kids Develop Basic Sports Skills Without Pushing Too Hard

The Youngest Athletes

Parents of very young children (especially kids under 5) may wonder how to give kids the basics they need to do well in a sport - basics that come before a child actually becomes part of a team.  Running, jumping, throwing and catching are basic elements of sports - and basic elements of play. Any parent can engage his or her child in these building blocks of athleticism; the key is to make it fun, not demanding or stressful.

By Deirdre Wilson

Youth sports

Toddler with Soccer BallsThe very words can conjure up excitement in parents who excelled at "the game" when they were kids, and dread in parents who didn't. Most parents agree that sports can teach valuable life skills: teamwork, responsibility, coordination, self-esteem, confidence and more. And, with the climbing rates of child obesity nationwide, parents are understandably concerned about ensuring that their children get enough physical activity. Playing sports is a great way to do that.

But parents of very young children (especially kids under 5) may wonder how to give kids the basics they need to do well in a sport - basics that come before a child actually becomes part of a team. Are kids born with these skills? Sports experts say no. In fact, Sport For All, an educational program of the National Association for Sport & Physical Education (NASPE), maintains that children "do not automatically develop the motor and physical skills they need to successfully participate in physical activities." Running, jumping, throwing and catching are basic elements of sports - and basic elements of play, as well. Any parent can engage his or her child in these building blocks of athleticism; the key is to make it fun, not demanding or stressful.

Join the Team … Later

The youngest kids can learn skills essential to sports, but pediatricians and athletic experts agree that this should occur through fun games with short, encouraging instructions - not in organized, competitive team sports.

Rae Pica, a movement education consultant and author of Your Active Child, echoes numerous child-development experts in her argument that kids under 11 or 12 years old shouldn't even be in organized, competitive team sports because their bodies aren't developed enough to safely accomplish certain athletic tasks. Furthermore, she and other experts say, kids in their primary years "simply aren't mentally equipped" to understand the complex rules and strategies of the game.

Watch a group of preschoolers play an organized game of soccer and you'll soon agree. Even if the game is carefully structured with the age group in mind, you'll still witness plenty of tears of frustration, children wandering off the playing field, kids distracted by something in the grass and more.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) asserts that when the demands of a team sport exceed a child's development, the child may become frustrated or believe he's a failure. And participation in organized sports at too young an age can have negative effects on a child's growth and maturation (such as gymnasts who develop a short stature or ballet dancers who experience late menarche), the pediatricians say.

The Demise of Free Play

The AAP laments the fact that during the late 20th century, free or unstructured play seemed to give way to organized sports for kids at increasingly younger ages. "Infant and preschool training programs are now available for many sports," the organization notes, pointing out the negative effects of this on children who may not be physically or emotionally ready for organized sports and such accessories as trophies, all-star teams, most-valuable player awards and more.

But with today's increasing reports of child obesity and sedentary lifestyles, physical activity is more important than ever to children's health. NASPE recommends that children spend at least one hour engaging in age-appropriate physical activity - either daily or most days of the week.

How can you help your child to learn basic sports skills through free play and to be physically active enough while still having plenty of fun? Movement experts, pediatricians and sports educators recommend engaging kids with movement games as early as infancy.

Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers

Place a baby on her stomach with a toy just out of reach and encourage her to get it, Pica suggests. Or build a safe, easy obstacle course with furniture or boxes big enough to crawl under or through. The idea is to get down on the floor and play with your baby - and not to depend on a walker, baby swings or the TV set to entertain him.

Play "catch" with your baby by rolling a soft object back and forth at first and then gently tossing the ball up and down. As the child gets older, don't give up on the soft object. It will help her overcome what would be a natural instinct to duck or turn away from a hard baseball, basketball or soccer ball. Once the two of you are ready to take this game outside, stick to the soft object again and toss it back and forth at short distances. The more you practice, the better your child can become.

Encourage toddlers and preschoolers to climb, run, jump and roll - in your house, your back yard and the neighborhood playground. Do it along with them, and you're guaranteed to increase the fun. Kids love to do things alongside their parents; and you're modeling how important physical activity is.

Neither you nor the child should be frustrated if skills don't come immediately. Patience is the key, and parents need to keep fun as the primary objective. Laugh when you stumble or miss catching a ball. Talk about what you could do to catch it next time.

Children Ages 6 to 8

Kids in the early elementary school grades can usually throw or kick well, but may not be able to combine two skills - running and throwing, for example - at the same time, according to Eric Small, M.D., the founder and director of the Sports Medicine Center for Young Athletes and the author of Kids & Sports.

Kids at this age need to practice their basic skills to become proficient in sports. Small notes that young children will want to try a variety of sports activities, and he recommends that any involvement in organized sports be with programs that emphasize learning and having fun.

The NASPE recommends exposing young kids to a wide variety of physical activities. Add swimming, running, jumping rope and tumbling to first attempts at playing catch, kicking a ball or trying to hit one with a bat or racquet.

In Kids & Sports, Small suggests the following activities that parents and kids at this age can do together:

  • Practice throwing balls at targets, into buckets or barrels, or even into basketball hoops.
  • Kick soccer or beach balls around to help the child develop coordination.
  • Play tag games to help improve agility.
  • Practice hitting soft objects with bats, racquets or paddles.


Ready for Team Sports

Once your child is ready for a team sport, the emphasis should be on fun and learning, especially in programs for kids under age 10, according to many youth sports experts. They advise parents to look for programs where adult teachers or coaches demonstrate patience, encouragement and good humor; where children get equal playing time and the chance to play different positions on the team; and where the competition is considered fun and friendly, not stressful or demanding.

The AAP recommends that pediatricians take a more active role in helping parents determine which sports are safe and developmentally appropriate for kids at different ages. Parents should check in with their child's pediatrician before enrolling the youngster in a team sport.

Above all, parents and coaches need to remember what numerous surveys and studies have indicated about children who quit a sports team or lose interest in sports - often at as young as 11: the biggest reason is that the sport ceased to be fun.


Fair Play: Making Organized Sports a Great Experience for Your Kids, by Scott B. Lancaster, Prentice Hall Press, 2002. The author, the senior director of NFL Youth Football Development, offers great ideas for parent involvement in sports.

Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child's Fun and Success in Youth Sports, by Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney and Linda Hall, Health Communications Inc., 2001. Bigelow is a nationally known speaker and writer on the perils of adult over-enthusiasm, pressure and zealousness in children's sports.

Kids & Sports, Everything You and Your Child Need to Know About Sports, Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Good Health - a Doctor's Guide for Parents and Coaches, by Eric Small, M.D., a Newmarket Parenting Guide, 2002. An easy-to-read guide to encouraging physical activity and sports skills in children.

Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional and Cognitive Development Through Age-Appropriate Activity, by Rae Pica, Contemporary Books, 2003. Pica, a movement specialist, offers ideas for family physical activity with kids from infancy and up, as well as a thorough look at the dangers of sedentary lifestyles.


American Academy of Pediatricians
- The academy's various stances on children and sports can be found by searching the "Policy Statements" on this Web site.

National Association for Sport & Physical Education - Learn about NASPE's guidelines for children's physical activity, the Sport For All program, parent involvement and more.

Deirdre Wilson is a senior editor for Dominion Parenting Media.