If you’ve ever cared for a young child, you know the struggle of teaching that there’s a time and a place for everything. It’s 95 degrees outside, but your four-year-old insists on wearing a parka and a beanie. You’re at a funeral, and your munchkin starts belting her favorite TV show’s theme song. Your six-year-old wants to be a bodybuilder—now. But is it safe to let him explore that passion?
Dr. Cynthia LaBella, a pediatric sports medicine specialist, explains that “when a child attempts to play a sport that is beyond his developmental level, it is frustrating and unsuccessful.” The truth is that some sports are simply inappropriate for children of certain ages.
So what sport is appropriate for your young child to play? Short answer: soccer.
Longer answer: Soccer is the perfect first sport for your child. It employs skills that young children already have, teaches skills that transfer to other sports, makes cardiovascular health fun, is social, and encourages play. Sound like everything you’d want in a sport and more? That’s because it is.
Soccer Is appropriate for young kids.
Soccer involves a lot of running and kicking—or running and clumping around the ball if we’re talking about a typical children’s soccer game. This is good news; among several sports-related skills, “mature running skills come first – between the ages of four and five,” says LaBella.
Also, because of kids’ short attention spans, “sports need to be active and can’t involve a lot of standing around,” says Dr. Marshall, sports medicine program medical director. He recommends soccer as a great sport for keeping young players’ attention.
But while soccer is generally a great sport for young kids, you still have to be careful. Heading the ball “has been linked to concussions and possible brain injury. And it can happen whether the move is done correctly or not.” The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends not heading the ball until age 10. And it may be best for children to avoid purposely heading the ball until age 13, says Karl Dewazien, coaching director for the California Youth Soccer Association North.
Soccer teaches skills that transfer to other sports.
While toddlers might have a hard time playing organized games of soccer, older children have improved “vision, attention spans and transitional skills, such as throwing for distance. . . . They’re also better able to follow directions.” With these skills in place, kids are ready to train for and play soccer in an organized way. Mayo Clinic suggests that six is a good age for kids to start organized soccer.
As kids train for and play soccer games, they build qualities that are vital for other sports: balance, endurance, muscle strength, flexibility, and coordination, to name a few. Want your child to play ice hockey? Soccer will prepare him to balance on that slippery playing field. Hoping your little girl will join you in running marathons some day? Soccer will help her develop the needed endurance. Are you just praying that your child won’t grow up to be a clutz like you? No shame in being a clutz, but soccer is great for learning coordination.
Soccer makes cardiovascular health fun.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “about 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year–that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.” That’s a sobering fact, and it should make us evaluate what we’re doing to help our children avoid being one of those 610,000 people.
It’s vital for kids to develop healthy exercise habits early in life, and soccer is a great way to start that habit! Soccer helps kids develop cardiovascular endurance and keep them at a healthy weight.
But what if your child struggles to exercise? Whether your child struggles with technique or simply being fit enough to play very long, there are solutions. One solution is the SockIt, a training device designed especially for kids. The SockIt lights up when kids kick the ball correctly, giving them instant positive feedback in a fun way. Another solution is to build up endurance a little every day. At this stage, building a lifelong habit may be more important than clocking in hours—your child will thank you later for helping them build the personal strength necessary to exercise daily.
A third solution: take advantage of the social nature of soccer.
Soccer is social.
Soccer is an inherently social sport. Not only do players learn to work together as a team, but they also get to socialize as they lace up their cleats. Soccer can teach kids discipline and leadership, and it can build up kids’ self-esteem, benefitting them on and off the field.
Here’s another huge bonus: the “social factors that may . . . contribute to the maintenance of a physically active lifestyle.” A study at the University of Copenhagen compared runners and soccer players. They found that a year after the study, many of the soccer players were still playing soccer, but far fewer runners were still running. The study explained that this difference could “very well be due to the fact that the runners focussed [sic]on their health and on getting in shape, whereas the soccer players were more committed to the activity itself, including the fun and not letting down team mates [sic].”
Soccer encourages play.
Play as a concept has recently come into the spotlight, with many Ted Talks, academic articles, and blog posts covering the subject. “It is unstructured play, where partners have to negotiate the rules, that is most important for the beneficial effects on the prefrontal cortex,” writes Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. And Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD., writes, “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.”
One of the great things about soccer is that it doesn’t have to be formal; you can just kick the ball back and forth, playing one-on-one or two-on-two, whatever suits your fancy! This versatility opens up opportunities for all kinds of games in addition to the formal game of soccer. This unstructured play allows kids to develop the creativity, negotiation skills, and emotional strength that is so vital to their young lives.
Soccer benefits the physical, mental, and emotional health of young players. Because it employs skills that young children already have, teaches skills that transfer to other sports, makes cardiovascular health fun, is social, and encourages play, soccer is the perfect first sport to start your child in.
A version of this article was published by Good Day Orange County. It has been republished here with permission.