ITASCA, IL. – 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.
That is the message from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which has updated recommendations for families and communities that urge an emphasis on enjoyment of sports -- instead of winning -- as the ultimate goal.
The clinical report, “Organized Sports for Children, Preadolescents, and Adolescents,” published in the June 2019 issue of Pediatrics (May 20 online), details ways to include more children and teens in sports and suggests how pediatricians can help through their conversations with families.
“If we offer children a variety of sports for all skill levels, they are more likely to try new activities and stick with the ones they enjoy,” said Kelsey Logan, MD, FAAP, an author of the clinical report by the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. “The interest should start with the child, not the parent.”
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.
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.
“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.”
Sports participation can improve well-being in some youth who are medically at risk, and it also has been associated with improved mental health.
“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.”
An infographic is available for media use upon request.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 67,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit www.aap.org and follow us on Twitter @AmerAcadPeds