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Children, sports and exercise: Choices for all ages

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 2, 2021.

Want to give your child a head start on lifelong fitness? Consider children's sports and other kid-friendly physical activities.

With your encouragement and support, chances are a few sports will spark your child's interest. Fan the flame by taking your child to local sporting events or sharing your own interests in sports and exercise.

Consider age-appropriate activities

Your child is likely to show natural preferences for certain sports or activities. Start there, keeping your child's age, maturity and abilities in mind.

Ages 2 to 5

Toddlers and preschoolers are beginning to master many basic movements, but they're too young for most organized sports. Toddlers who participate in organized sports typically don't gain any long-term advantage in terms of future sports performance.

For children in this age group, unstructured free play is usually best. This may include:

  • Running
  • Hopping, skipping and jumping
  • Tumbling
  • Throwing and catching
  • Swimming
  • Riding a tricycle or bicycle
  • Climbing on playground equipment

Ages 6 to 9

As children get older, their vision, attention spans, motor coordination and skills, such as throwing for distance, improve. They're also better able to follow directions.

Sports and activities that may be appropriate for this age group include:

  • T-ball, softball or baseball
  • Soccer
  • Running
  • Gymnastics
  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Martial arts
  • Dancing
  • Jumping rope
  • Rollerblading or ice skating
  • Hiking
  • Skiing

Carefully supervised strength training is OK beginning at age 7 or 8 in kids who are motivated. The focus should be on proper technique and movement.

Ages 10 to 12

At this age, most children have mature vision and the ability to understand and recall sports strategies. They are typically ready to take on complex skill sports, such as football, basketball, hockey and volleyball. Keep in mind, however, that growth spurts caused by puberty can temporarily affect a child's coordination and balance.

Whatever sports your child participates in, ensure that he or she has a foundation of proper technique and movement. Coaches and sports professionals, such as golf and tennis pros, can be helpful resources.

Contact sports

Before allowing your child to participate in a contact sport, consider his or her age, maturity, and physical size. Are the physical contact, aggressiveness and competition involved developmentally appropriate for your child? Will your child enjoy it?

Because children enter puberty at different ages, there can be dramatic physical differences among children of the same sex — particularly boys. Children competing against others who are more physically mature might be at increased risk of injury.

Comparing the options

When you're comparing sports, consider:

  • How much will your child enjoy the activity?
  • Does the sport emphasize age-appropriate skill development?
  • How can I help my child explore different options and a variety of activities?

Avoid early specialization in a single sport. Focusing on one sport could prevent your child from testing his or her skills and experiencing other enjoyable sports. Sports specialization can also lead to stress and burnout.

Questions regarding safety and well-being

Consider the following questions to judge whether a sports program is physically safe, promotes skills development, and encourages fair play and respect among players:

  • Does the coach require players to follow the rules and use proper safety equipment?
  • Do players take time to warm up and cool down before and after each practice or event?
  • Does the coach pay attention to hydration, humidity and temperature?
  • How much time and effort are spent on skill development?
  • How are differences in skills managed?
  • Are children taught proper movement and body positioning?
  • Is the coach attentive to the prevention and recognition of concussions?
  • How much does each child play, and how is playing time determined?
  • How does the coach communicate with children?
  • How do coaches or other parents approach competition, winning and losing?

Lifelong goals

Overall, be positive and encouraging. Emphasize effort, improvement and enjoyment over winning or personal performance. Attend events and practices as your schedule allows, and act as a good model of sportsmanship yourself.

One of the most important goals is to find physical activities and sports that your child enjoys and that encourage a lifetime of staying active and fit.

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