The worst thing about starting activities with your child — you know, the kind where you hand them off for 45 minutes of peewee soccer or preballet while you enjoy a few quiet moments — is that you are entirely mistaken if you think your child will resemble any kind of athlete. The active 3-year-old is typically a hot mess of unorganized energy that has zero listening skills and a remarkable inability to follow directions. Unfortunately, the activity experience for your child can involve a dose of humiliation for the parent. Many kids aren’t developmentally ready for “sports” at this age, and often programs seem designed with the 5- or 6-year-old in mind.
Here’s what you need to remember: there’s nothing wrong with your child. The class may be after a day of school or day care, or just at the end of the day, when their attention and energy may be low — and when you would rather be having a beer. You might think that a young child accustomed to the routines of preschool would not balk at what appears to be a fun group activity, but in fact, strange groups may still terrify a child, particularly when they are also being asked to do something new in the presence of adults.
The other worst thing is that nearly all activities with young children — especially sports — require a lot of parental involvement, even if you’re just observing. I am speaking of logistics, but also emotions. All of these things can cause stress — perhaps more stress than is worth the benefit to your child.
Yet parents generally cannot resist the idea of activities. I know, by the time my daughter turned 3, I was desperate to do something out of the house or outside that sounded fun and that seemed like any kid would love. You are eager to see who your kid is going to be, and doing a class seems like that first step toward childhood. Here are a few things to keep in mind when starting out.
What to Do:
Look for activities that seem particularly geared toward the 3 to 5 set. Actual sports, like ballet and basketball, are really quite hard. Is soccer more like fun running games? Is ballet more of a movement class? Ask other parents for recommendations. Start with something simple and manageable for your schedule.
If it’s a bust, reevaulate your notion of commitment. This may not be the best age to make your kid stick with something, just to teach that lesson.
And make sure you are all having fun. If the drive is too long, there is never parking, or you can’t stand the environment you are observing, it’s probably not worth it.
If possible, consider doing something besides parental monitoring. Leave the room. Fit in a workout yourself. Volunteer as a coach. Don’t always be the parent who takes the kid to things — let your spouse do it, too.
What to know:
There will be tears.
At this age, it is definitely not a competition — except, it is. There will be kids who are super into it. (And parents, too). And there will be kids who hate it. Your kid will probably fall somewhere in the middle, and it will vary week to week, day to day. Even if his or her best friend loves it, your kid may not.
Organizers should always be focused on games and fun — the introduction to the skill. They should do less talking and more to keep kids moving.
Retain perspective. I’ve already heard parents lament that they didn’t start their 4- or 5-year-old “early enough.” Early enough for what?
As the parent of a girl, and as one who once played a ton of sports, it’s eye-opening to see how gendered some children’s activities — especially sports — are. Dance is mostly girls, and hockey is mostly boys. There are dance moms and hockey dads. I don’t know why I thought it would be different, but again, with kids, sometimes the youngest children seem the most gendered, and you dump them in a gendered environment, and they behave accordingly. That said, as an adult, I tend to read the restrictive gendering into many situations — I’m not sure it matters to kids at all.
By doing something new, they will improve, gain confidence, and for the most part, have fun. This is delightful to see.
Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t turning activities into the boring school version of play. It shouldn’t be a drag. Remember to play with your kid, especially outside of the class. I mean play, not instruct or coach or motivate. Let your child lead and reinvent the sport.
If you’re really into sports, or want your kid to be, try playing at home and with friends first. Give your kid a chance to see and try something without the pressure of it being formally organized by adults. Teach them how to throw or kick. Even at 3 or 4, your kid will have a keen sense of what you want them to do and when they don’t meet your expectations. Make sure you are ready for this interaction before you place your child in sports.
Do look for things your whole family can do together — hiking, sledding, swimming, yoga, dancing, ice-skating, or walking. At this age, you may find the impromptu dance party more gratifying than a semester of ballet.