Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

But the Best Youth Sports Programs Also Educate


Children are being enrolled in organized youth sports programs at increasingly earlier ages, a growing trend that can have substantial benefits, if properly designed, organized and executed.

A good program should be all about having fun, experts say, but it can also help a very young child develop motor skills, and as they get older, teach them to interact with others.

There are leagues all the way down to age 3 for sports like soccer. That's not a bad thing when the programs are expertly and carefully run by people who understand that at such early ages it's all about physical development, not competitive games. Still, parents and guardians would do well to watch out for programs run by well-meaning but untrained coaches, said Dr. Fran Cleland, president, SHAPE ( Society of Health and Physical Educators), and a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at West Chester University in West Chester, Pa.

Cleland, whose expertise is primarily in sports programs run by school systems, is not enamored at all of the idea that very young kids should be enrolled in youth sports programs. "I mean, we have leagues all the way down to age 3 for soccer," she said. "I don't think kids should be in organized sports until probably up until third grade. Because between kindergarten and second grade children need to be acquiring fundamental movement skills, which is what they can acquire in a quality physical education programs. Oftentimes youth sports is not necessarily taught by a knowledgeable person. They don't know about childhood development.

"I just think children need to go outside and play," she added.

From birth to age 2, Cleland explained the implications for teaching: "Kids are going from the sensory motor into the pre-operational stage of cognitive development," she said. "What you are supposed to do is create a physically and emotionally safe environment. They need to play. They don't need to be taught anything. They can have a ball and throw it. They are just learning how to talk and walk. I think the play environment for 1- to 2-year-olds would be even more scaled down than for a preschool child. I saw a parent discipline a child for not playing with others and the child was only 2. It's not going to happen at 2, because they are egocentric at that age. And as far as explicit instruction, it's a waste."

Youth sports programs such as Start Smart, by the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), or Play Ball, a Major League Baseball initiative, understand that.

"It's fine if developmentally, a program is doing fundamental movements drills and they are doing practice tasks. But as far as competition, young children, psychologically and socially, really don't work well in large groups," Cleland said.

Some kids are enrolled in groups at an early age because, these days, many parents have to work double time to support a family and don't have time to play with their kids after school. Or, an over-zealous parent might think their child has shown early talent in basketball or baseball and they want that talent developed, said Andy Parker, director of youth development, NAYS.

NAYS started in 1981 as a training program for volunteer youth sports coaches. "We recognized that there were all these adults, these parents, moms and dads, coaching our youth sports teams, and none of them have gone through any sort of training," Parker said. "We created a system, a program where we are able to give these coaches some tools, education and knowledge so they are in a better position to allow kids to have fun and ultimately succeed in sports."

NAYS was originally a coaches training program and then along the way they created an education program for parents. "It is an educational system for the professionals at parks and recs departments and YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs that are running these sports. The idea," Parker said, "was how to do everything better to best suit the needs of the kids and the community. Along the way we realized that moms and dads wanted their 3- to 5-year-olds to participate in youth sports."


Some 70 percent of kids in youth sports programs drop out by age 13, a NAYS study revealed. Another revealing fact, Parker said, was that roughly 50 percent of the kids in the 6-to-8-year-old age range that were participating in youth sports really didn't have any skills that would apply to that youth sport. "If you had a handful of 6- to 8-year-olds that were playing baseball in Little League, roughly half of them literally didn't know how to throw a baseball, and do the things that are needed for success."

Start Smart is designed for 3-to-5-year-olds, and follows some of the guidelines that educators like Fran Cleland suggest. "We put together Start Smart to try and help these communities that were in flux as to what to do with these younger children, where their parents were beating down their doors saying 'we want to put these kids in your program,'" Parker said. "Some of those parents, impatient, went ahead and created kind of a competitive environment, which is inappropriate for that age group if they don't have the skills they need.

Start Smart is geared toward motor skill development. There is no game play, there is no competition, there are no teams. For example, in Start Smart baseball all the talk is about throwing, catching, hitting, and then running in agility drills. The program is set up starting with the simplest task and then builds upon that week after week to develop the child's skills, so that when they turn 4 to 6 years old, and mom and dad want to put them into something more advanced, they at least have some knowledge, some skill base that they can work off of, when they move into this next level of programming," Parker said.

"We don't want parents on day one showing up with their 4-year-old with the idea that OK, this is the first step toward my child's professional sports contract," he said. "We are trying to eliminate that parental mentality and get the child to develop some skills, let them socialize, make friends, create a nice environment for everyone to grow and succeed together."

Programs That Work

When Miste Adams, ?recreation superintendent, ?National Trail Parks and Recreation District, in Dayton, Ohio, looked to start activities for kids, she used the NAYS program as a guideline.

"Why re-invent the wheel?" she said. "We started a program for 3-to-5-year-olds, although I think that is a little young to start kids in organized sports. But NAYS has a program more designed for social interaction, and developing motor skills. It sounds easy, but when you put kids together, it's not so easy. The lesson plan is all laid out, so we looked at that and molded it to fit our program needs."


At 3 to 5, some kids have not been to preschool or kindergarten, so things like asking them to line up aren't so simple. They may not know what a line is. "We are teaching them not only a sports skill, but also some of the basic things," Adams said, "things that are also incorporated into the preschool and kindergarten testings here in Ohio. Parents want their kids to be in these programs, so we decided we might as well do it in an appropriate way because it is in such hot demand. We would have 3-year-olds playing a world series in T-ball if we left it to them. With this program, we are giving the parents what they want, but also doing what is best for the kids. Our philosophy here is put the kids first."

It is not always easy going against the parents, Adams said, but once the parents get the kids out there on the field, "everyone thinks their kid is a star in the backyard kicking a ball or shooting a basket," she said, laughing.

Adams runs soccer, T-ball and basketball programs that in just one year have been successful, and much needed.

In New Orleans, one of the things that Shonnda Smith, chief programming officer, New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, does is pay careful attention to the coaching certification process, "making sure our coaches are background checked. Making sure they are going through skill-based training. We meet a lot of moms and dads who want to coach but have no understanding of fundamental skills behind the sport. We want to provide a safe environment for the kids. We also do a rules clinic, which explains different rules. We want our coaches to know how to act and are responsible."

"Children want to have fun," added Victor Richard, CEO of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. "One of the points that I constantly drill is relative to kids just wanting to have fun. They want to make friends. They love jumping into the dirt, or mud, or whatever. They love hugging a new friend, taking pictures. So on top of the structure, Shonnda has also put in work relative to teaching values, building character, teaching morals and also … having fun."

New Orleans' youth programs, such as a Pee Wee sports league, start kids at 3 and 4 years old. "Our biggest challenge," Richards said, "has been parent participation. Our goal is that we work with the 3- and 4-year-olds as they filter into our program, but hopefully we try to engage parents to stay involved longer in the program."

In Detroit, where a youth basketball program has attracted 6,000 participants annually (plus 600 in baseball and 200 to 300 in an aquatics program), children typically start as early as 3 years old, said Tracey Lawrence-Thomas, reservation and events coordinator, Detroit (Mich.) Parks and Recreation Department.



Their Pee Wee basketball program teaches basic skills, "teaching the fundamentals of the game," she said. "We don't keep scores. We are more concerned that the kids learn the basics. It is fun to watch for parents and spectators because all of the kids are out there having a ball. Most of the time their uniforms are falling off, but it is a great time for them. Eventually, they start playing other teams, when they get older, realizing people have to be substituted in and out, so they learn teamwork and sportsmanship."


Lawrence-Thomas runs the same type of program with baseball. "We have a program called Micro-Mini. This program starts with children as early as they can walk. At the earliest age, it is all about developing motor skills. We want them to learn how to move their bodies, how you throw the ball, developing that movement, how to make their legs and arms work together, developing a child's sight and listening skills, hand and eye coordination. We have some 1-year-olds out there, again, really basic physical stuff as they develop. That program eventually will lead into our T-ball program, where we get a lot of kids who come from the Micro Mini program.

"We have a high obesity rate among our youths," Lawrence-Thomas added. "Our children are so used to technology that they are getting away from doing active things outside. What we try to do here in Detroit is connect our communities with our facilities, our parks and our programs, so that kids can have a healthier lifestyle with just leisure activities. It does not have to be competitive, just something to get out there and keep yourself busy and motivated to do better things to become fit and healthy. That is what our programs are basically all about."

Batter Up: Play Ball

When Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred came on board, one of his key initiatives was for baseball to re-engage with young people. His strong belief was that in order to cultivate fans at the younger age group you have to first involve them in youth baseball or softball.

"That is the premise of our main engagement piece for kids, which is Play Ball," said David James, vice president, Youth Programs, MLB.

The program, now 2.5 years old, has been a smashing success, James said. Play Ball works in conjunction with USA Baseball and USA Softball, the governing bodies in the United States for both sports.

"We describe the program as an organized recess," James said. "Using plastic bats and balls, we do events all over the country where we engage kids in informal ways to play the game—homerun derby, running the bases, agilities, pop ups and grounders—the goal is to just make sure the kids are having fun. We are big at playing music while the event occurs, the popular music kids listen to."


In 2017 MLB conducted 26 events with a little more than 26,000 kids attending. "On top of that," James said, "all 30 clubs engage in Play Ball events throughout the year. The last two years we have dedicated a particular week in the season and called it Play Ball weekend, which gives our major league clubs the opportunity to do similar type events. Many clubs have taken it a bit further in a good way, where they reach out to their respective youth leagues in their markets and do a parade of kids in the stadium before the game."

Up to now the programs have been run through the major league clubs. This past spring, minor league baseball signed on, and a limited number activated it. In 2018, all 168 minor league clubs will have Play Ball events. "That gives us a much larger footprint," James said.

Also signing on is the United States Conference of Mayors, and they are doing Play Ball events. "We think they are a big partner," James said, "especially focusing on underserved kids and underserved communities because the municipal entity is the one, in a lot of markets, that owns the fields. So quite honestly, if a mayor likes the program, is impressed with it, he's telling his recreation department and owners of the property to get more kids out there to play."

Play Ball events are for kids 7 to 13 years old, boys and girls. "Most participants are 12 and under," James said. "Play Ball is a 90-minute event. The kids go through five stations on a 90-foot baseball diamond. The stations consist of a homerun derby, where kids just swing for the fences; the other station is pop up and grounders and our clinicians will split them up into groups … it is developing the basic muscle memories of the game. We do an agility station with the rope ladders and cones, and an obstacle course. The last station is running the bases. Kids rotate through all the stations.

"When they are done they get a Play Ball set, shirts," James said. "The neat thing is when the event is over, inevitably kids keep playing … just out there having fun. We are really enthused about kids at the event. The transition is to have them continue in the game."

MLB did some research on the participants and found out that a lot of kids that have come out to the events aren't currently playing in a league. "We've seen instances where a child has some natural ability and our staff might go up to the kid and say, 'Hey, you're pretty good. Where do you play?' And he will say, 'I'm not playing anywhere,'" James said. "So as part of there is an app that is called Play Ball Near You, and organizations like Little League, Pony League have made their databases available to us. You can go to the app and find the closest organized league that suits your child's purpose."

The hope, James said, "is that as Play Ball continues to evolve, separate from the large casual participation, it will spur more kids to sign up in league play, which is another step in building that foundation to future baseball and softball fans by way of them participating in the game."