This spring we are as close to over-scheduled as we’ve ever been. I guess this is what happens when you have multiple kids in multiple activities. Of course, over-scheduled is completely relative and I know it could (and eventually will) be much worse. Since the boys are young we limit them to one activity at a time, which currently means soccer for Bee one night a week, baseball for Zip two days a week, and pretty soon softball for my husband two nights a week.
Watching Bee at soccer “practice” reminds me of what Zip was like when he played soccer at age 3, which is so different from what he is like in sports at 6! Watching my young preschooler and my kindergartner in their respective sports has gotten me thinking about what young kids get out of organized activities and how, developmentally, the differences between a team of 3-year-olds and a team of 6-year-olds makes a whole lot of sense.
If you put a preschooler in soccer, chances are good that he or she will do one or all of the following:
- Refuse to participate.
- Run off the field to pick dandelions.
- Make an awesome breakaway, dribble down the field, and – SCORE! – kick the ball right into her own team’s goal.
- Keep waving to you, shouting things at you, and coming over to say hello in the middle of practice.
- Shower grass in his teammate’s hair while the coach is giving instructions.
- Join her teammates as they all sit in the goal during the game.
- Bite a teammate…because waiting turns is boring.
I’m not saying my kids have done any of these things. But, okay, yeah….they have done all of these things.
Besides the fact 3-year-olds have limited attention spans, they have pretty carpe diem attitudes. For the most part, they just want to have fun and live in the moment. And if you took Psychology 101, you might remember Erik Erikson and his psychosocial stages. At 3, kids are just moving past the autonomy vs. shame-and-doubt stage and into the initiative vs. guilt stage. This means they’re learning how to be independent, which also includes making sure their parents are still around to keep them safe (“Hi, Dad! Are you watching me, Dad?!”), and they’re figuring out how to choose and initiate activities on their own (their activities, not yours). They are still mastering pretty basic things like washing their hands and getting dressed independently.
When it comes to preschoolers and sports, if it’s fun they’ll do it. But don’t expect them to pay attention for very long or to care if they are dribbling the ball properly. I think most parents know all this – we just forget it when an athletic field is involved.
Then we’ve got 6-year-olds who are moving on to Dr. Erikson’s next stage – industry vs. inferiority. Besides having better focus and impulse-control (relatively speaking, of course), as kids move into elementary school they start to take real pride in mastering new skills in a way that preschoolers just aren’t so concerned with. So now, if they enjoy sports, they probably want to be good at them. That’s why my 6-year-old comes home from baseball practice and immediately asks if we can help him practice some more. There is a sense of intrinsic gratification that comes from hitting the ball on the first pitch or being able to catch the ball reliably. Bee loves when we cheer for him, but he really doesn’t care yet about perfecting his dribbling.
I think where parents get into trouble is expecting preschoolers to approach sports like an older kid does – basically, expecting their preschooler to care. I used to watch Zip at basketball or soccer or whatever season it was and be mortified that he spent half the time digging in the dirt or waving at me or gazing up at the sky. And then I’d take my eyes off my kid for one second and realize most of the other kids were doing the exact same things. Maybe a few were really paying attention and working hard, but a lot of them were picking dandelions too. That’s what preschoolers do.
So why do we put preschoolers in sports or other organized activities at all? Hopefully, we do it because it’s fun. Because it’s a place for them to learn and practice social skills and participating in a group. Because it gets them moving and introduces the idea that physical activity is valuable. Because it gives us parents a chance to get out of the house and talk to other adults on the sidelines. And, oh yes, maybe because the soccer coach looks an awful lot like Neil Patrick Harris. (Oo-la!)
If we start worrying about whether 3-year-olds are taking sports (or any activity) seriously enough, we run the risk of undermining the good stuff. Gradually, if sports are their thing, they’ll move from “this is fun” to “this is fun and I want to pay attention and get good at it.” And even then, they may decide to climb trees instead of sit on the bench. They are kids, after all.
Are your kids involved in sports? Does this sound familiar or is your experience different? I’d love to hear about your experiences – just scroll on down to the comments and share.
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