Toddlers into sports before they're out of diapers



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Posted on March 12, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Updated Saturday, Mar 12 at 12:12 PM

All the participants outfitted in little blue jerseys in the Lil' Kickers soccer program "Bunnies" class are under age two.

"All right soccer players, today we're going to do the soccer dance." called out their coach.

Activities in the 50 minute class include a round of red-light green-light, and some bubble stomping. At this age, adults must attend class with the children. Camila Wattula came with her son Charlie. 
"We just noticed from the minute he learned to walk he wanted to run around with a ball, and he was kicking it. So we just thought "Maybe we have a little soccer star on our hands," Wattula said.

The soccer training is just one of a number of sports programs that enroll toddlers. But do toddlers need organized programs to hone skills that will take them to the top of their sports?

Dr. Monique Burton, Interim Chief of Sports Medicine at Seattle Children's said research shows it's not the case.

"While we see those stories of Olympians, and that they began when they were three, years old, it's not necessarily what we see in reality," Dr. Burton said.

Back at class, it's time for the toddlers to practice scoring goals. But the program focuses not elite training, rather on life skills through soccer, according to Karen Crowe, Lil' Kickers owner and Director of Child Development.

"At 18 and 24 months the kids are not learning soccer. What they're doing is developing a foundation for being active. So we are teaching balance and coordination. We're teaching listening skills, following directions," Crowe said.

Those are all important early learning skills. But is there a downside to toddler sports? Dr. Burton said a lot depends on the program.

She said parents should look for a program that has a mix of structured time and free play. It should emphasize experimentation, exploration and fun.

And she said parents should provide different activity choices for toddlers. That way they may avoid another problem that can happen when kids are pushed to focus on just one sport.

"I think you're at risk of setting up your child to have burnout, for over-training, overuse injuries, and it may actually set them up to not want to do that sport," Dr. Burton cautioned.

While Charlie's mother, Camila Wattula, said she wouldn't mind if he chooses soccer down the road, she values his weekly class for something else.

"For now I just know he has a good time. He looks forward to it. And I think that's enough for me," she said.

Dr. Burton also wanted parents to know that unstructured play, the kind kids get at their local playground is important for reaching toddler developmental milestones.

"You don't need to have an organized sport necessarily to be able to have these developmental milestones reached at an earlier age," she said.