By the time Evan* was six, several of his friends had joined the neighbourhood hockey league. His parents suggested he sign up too, but Evan balked. He’d tried skating lessons and hated them, mostly because he felt the other kids were all better than him. He didn’t want to feel like that again.
That left his mom, Madeleine Stroud,* wondering if she’d made a mistake by not getting Evan started sooner.
“I got the sense that the window opens between four and six for hockey; after that you’re sort of coming late to the party,” says Stroud. For some kids, that’s fine. They’re OK with playing catch-up for a bit. Not Evan: “My guy is quite self-conscious and sensitive about appearing incompetent, so that was a deal breaker,” says his mom.
While six hardly seems over the hill when it comes to signing up for athletic activities, Stroud’s experience is quite common, says Shaunna Taylor, a coaching consultant with The Coaching Association of Canada. Programs for three- and four-year-olds are now widely available, which can put pressure on parents looking for new sports activities for their six- to eight-year-olds, partly because some of their peers will have been at it for a while.
In Taylor’s opinion, three or four is a little young to be signing kids up.
“Specializing too early or doing the same activity several days of each week is not shown to be beneficial in terms of long-term athletic development.” A passionate hockey family may want to have kids on the ice earlier, says Taylor, and that’s fine if the kids are keen. Other children will develop an interest in a particular sport much later.
In general, though, six is a good age to sign kids up for a team sport or a class like gymnastics. “We call the years between six and nine the FUNdamentals stage,” says Taylor. They’re ready to learn sport-specific skills, but the emphasis should still very much on having fun, learning to co-operate and work together as a team.”
*Names changed by request.
Here are some things to think about when you’re looking for the right fit for your child:
What’s the coach’s approach? Is the emphasis on competition, developing elite players and winning, or on developing skills, encouraging teamwork and having some fun?
John Stern is a father to three who has coached girls’ baseball. “Part of my job as a coach is to make sure I’m being fair to the kids,” he says. “Everyone should get a chance to pitch, catch and try out first base.”
Does the program welcome beginners? Look for groups that welcome and encourage kids, regardless of age or skill level. “Sometimes leagues or clubs will offer entry programs that focus on skill building to help kids get off to good start,” says Taylor.
“If you’re looking for a team sport, house leagues are a good bet,” says Stern, because they tend to emphasize teamwork over competition and are organized so that a range of ability is represented in each team.
Is the sport right for your child? Sometimes, finding the right activity takes some trial and error. That’s what happened with Evan. The skating class didn’t work out for him. But now, at age nine, he loves skating, a skill he picked up just by doing it himself, especially with a gang of buddies. And he has no regrets about not playing hockey.
Personality is a factor too. Stern’s girls love the camaraderie of team sports. Other kids, like Evan, like to work at something at their own pace. “We have 67 different activities registered. There’s got to be something in there that’s a good fit for your child and your family’s goals,” says Taylor, adding that some activities are easier to join no matter what age you are, like martial arts.
Is your child enjoying it? “Sometimes when I ask my daughter how her game was, she says, ‘We had Doritos for snack!’” laughs Stern. “For her, it’s as much about the social aspect as the exercise. And that’s just fine. She’s having fun!”