How young is too young for sport?
In the early part of the 20th century, physical activity for many children was just a part of everyday life. Generally, it was characterized as spontaneous, unstructured activities without adult-involvement. Sports complimented children's physical activity by being an outlet that offered them the benefits of motor skill development, socialization, creativity and enjoyment.
It would be in the latter part of the 20th century when children's physical activity changed dramatically. "'Free play' and unstructured games," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "primarily gave way to organized sports." It would be then when younger and younger participants began getting involved in organized sports programming.
Today, infant and preschool training programs are not unusual. The problem is sport science does not formally recognize infants or preschoolers as a part of the sports process. The capitalistic nature of sports, however, has led to its own self-correction that has recognized the demand for such programming. Sports have begun catering to the parents of the 5.5 million children under age six that participate in organized sports annually.
Formally, however, they remain a phenomenon of our mainstream sports culture. It is because of the unsportsmanlike ways young children think that do not allow them to fit the competitive ways we, otherwise, prefer to think about our sports. When forced to think of them, we often go to the furthest extremes, to either discount or overlook them entirely or, as in the case of the media, uses them as a scapegoat for all that is wrong with youth sports today.
Infants and preschool children and their families are by in large a disenfranchised population at best. While they themselves are not represented properly, they inherently represent an important facet of sport, namely the origins of most athletes’ careers.
The vast majority programs for the youngest of athletes are anything but competitive. In healthy contrast, they represent a non-competitive phase of sport, an age-appropriate exploration of sports concepts, equipment and movements. As such, these more age-appropriate programs help us better address the question, how young is too young for sport. No age should be excluded under the assumption that younger children will be exposed to non-competitive sides of sport and older elementary-aged children, either non-competitive or competitive sides of sport.
Just as children’s physical activity has changed dramatically, how we will view the sports process in the future is sure to change, with the addition of early learners in sport.