September 30, 2019

“Learning a new sport is also an effective way of building self-esteem...”

Early exposure to sports sets kids up for bigger goals.

This scene looks all too familiar to parents who have enrolled their 2 and 3 year olds in a Saturday morning soccer program. One child may be spinning in circles in the middle of the field while another child is captivated by an insect, absentmindedly walking into the middle of another team’s game. Moms and dads are left on the sidelines wondering if this was a good idea. 

While most 2 year olds are not destined to be the next Tiger Woods, there are more benefits than drawbacks to exposing young children to team sports.

Jenny Domiano, occupational therapist, is the owner of the Therapeutic Learning Center in Metairie, which provides outpatient occupational, speech, and physical therapy services to children throughout the Greater New Orleans area.

“In our setting, we often find children who are sensory seekers, meaning they want to be moving, and jumping, and running and that often gets a negative connotation in school when they are acting too rough,” she says. “Sports are a really good way to get that sensory seeking need met.”

Believe it or not, there are many suitable sports programs out there for the 4 and under crowd. Domiano suggests starting with a mommy and me gymnastics class, soccer tots, or T-ball. Even swimming (although not technically a team sport early on) allows kids to engage and have fun with other children their age. 

Team Tiny Tots

One of the most important benefits of introducing sports early on is the teamwork aspect.

“They are learning how to work as a team, they have a certain role to play, and their team is relying on them to provide this role,” says Domiano. “It also gives them a sense of belonging.”

Derek DeLatte understands the importance of team building with kids as young as 2 and 3. He is part owner of the Big Easy Sportsplex in New Orleans and has been running the Little Sluggers baseball program for the past ten years. Little Sluggers introduces the basics of baseball to 2–5 year olds.

“It’s really about them learning the proper way to play the game, learning the rules of the game, and making it fun so that they enjoy it,” DeLatte says. 

The young tots learn both the offensive and defensive sides of baseball, which include getting into their “baseball ready” stance and learning how to hold their hands like an alligator’s mouth around the baseball. 

While having fun learning the basics, kids are also being exposed to team etiquette such as patiently waiting their turn and not passing up their teammates on the bases.

The Little Sluggers program is designed differently than the ones geared for older kids as there is no score keeping, no real outs, and every child has a chance to swing the bat. There is even a superhero day where they get to wear their favorite costume while running the bases. 

Parents are always looking for something for their kids to do that is positive, DeLatte says, which is why they put them in this program at such a young age. Six of the Little Slugger graduates, including DeLatte’s son, were recently on the little league team that won the World Series.

Early Skills

Learning a new sport is also an effective way of building self-esteem in children as they can experience success after working on a skill, says Domiano. This could be as simple as mastering a forward roll in gymnastics or hitting the ball off the tee in baseball. Establishing discipline and a healthy foundation for exercise can set the child up for positive habits later in life. Being in a group environment can decrease anxiety by providing young children, who are naturally shy, with automatic friendships.

“The socialization aspect of [sports] is huge — they can make friends in a very easy and friendly way,” Domiano says.

Domiano adds that starting a sport as young as 2 can also help a child grow as an independent person by separating from their parents to engage with their team. If the child acts uninterested or cries, it is important to support them and not give up after one bad practice. They might need to get acclimated, so even five minutes away from mom or dad on the field should be considered a win.

“It’s working on so many great skills that they will need later in life when they get to school or when they start working. It’s just instilling important skills early on,” Domiano says.

Sarah Herndon is a freelance writer, mom, and frequent contributor to Nola Family.

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