Keeping the Fun in Children's Sports

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

We all know the saying: “It’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s about how you play the game.” But when it comes to sports for children, the nation’s top pediatricians say it’s really about how much fun kids have along the way.

A new clinical report on organized sports from the American Academy of Pediatrics outlines the plethora of benefits they offer children and teens -- from acquiring motor skills and social skills, to developing a positive self-image -- but ultimately underscores the importance of fun. When children have fun playing sports, they are more likely to remain involved in athletic programs and stay physically active throughout childhood, realizing lifelong health benefits for the developing body, brain and self-worth.

With the release of the clinical report in the journal Pediatrics, the AAP updated their recommendations for families and communities that urge an emphasis on enjoyment of sports -- instead of winning -- as the ultimate goal. But especially in younger children, all of this should spring from the child’s desire to get out there and play.

“The interest should start with the child, not the parent,” said Kelsey Logan, MD, an author of the clinical report by the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. “If we offer children a variety of sports for all skill levels, they are more likely to try new activities and stick with ones they enjoy.”

Most children are ready to play organized sports at about age 6, according to AAP. Before that, young children should spend an ample amount of time daily in free play. Running, leaping and climbing are examples of free play that help children develop motor skills needed for organized sports participation.

“Young athletes typically learn skills and values that they can use in everyday life,” said Steven Cuff, MD, FAAP, co-author of the report. “The camaraderie and teamwork needed on a playing field offers lasting lessons on personal responsibility, sportsmanship, goal-setting and emotional control.”

For older children and teens, the report notes that participation in school-sponsored organized sports, relative to the entire student body, is low. They encourage schools to offer multiple levels of play at the junior high and high school levels, thereby retaining those athletes who do not desire to or cannot compete at high levels but want to remain involved in sports.

Parents are also key in kids’ participation in organized sports. Parental encouragement and a focus on fun and progress instead of winning are important influencers of whether a child enjoys and continues organized sports. Forcing organized sports participation is not likely to have long-term benefits, the report says. 

“Families can help by encouraging children to ‘sample’ sports, so they can figure out what they find enjoyable,” Dr. Logan said. “Ideally, there is an activity for everyone, with the focus on having fun.”

AAP also recommends:

  • Preschools and elementary schools can positively influence long-term participation in organized sports, physical activity and cardiovascular health.

  • Junior high and high schools should offer multiple levels of sports play, which will help retain athletes who cannot or do not want to compete at very high levels.

  • Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may face obstacles such as a lack of transportation to participate in activities. Community groups can help by identifying those needs and finding ways to support families and provide sports opportunities.

  • Parent support should be general and positive. Forcing sports participation is not likely to help the child achieve long-term benefits.

  • Parents are encouraged to ask questions about sports programs to ensure a safe environment, including questions about hiring procedures, codes of conduct and communication between coach and athlete.

  • Coaches who view organized sports with a respectful, development- and fun-focused approach are more likely to have athletes who enjoy and stay in sports.