Parks and playgrounds are nice places for children to play.
Parks and playgrounds are nice places for children to play.

My next door neighbor coaches his sons’ youth football team. A few weeks ago, he noticed that our three-year-old, who was born on the same day as his youngest child, was just as tall as his six-year-old so he asked my husband to let our son play for his team. My husband declined his offer and also explained that our son’s height didn’t automatically qualify him for sharing the field with children three years older than him. My neighbor argued that it would be safe and went on to tell my husband that only two kids from his team had to go to the emergency room this season. My husband found little comfort in those numbers and neither did I.

At my son’s play school, three-year-olds and six-year-olds don’t even share the same playground, nor should they. On all developmental levels, there is far too much difference between these sets of children. If the play school won’t even let these children share the same play space, there is no way to justify lining three-year-olds up against six-year-olds on a football field.

I’ve already been approached by basketball coaches asking me to bring my kid out for their teams. Most recently, I was approached as we were leaving the library after our weekly visit. That coach wasn’t pushy. He just recommended it because he noticed my son’s size but also his enthusiasm for “ready, set, go,” which he likes to play outside on the library’s walkway.

Other than size, I don’t quite understand why my son seems to be considered such a worthy candidate for organized sports. Just a few months ago, my son was frustrated by games that were appropriate for his age group. Thus, when I came to pick him up one afternoon he was crying because, as he explained it, he couldn’t sit in the chair of his choice. When I went into his classroom because he left his jacket behind, his tears made more sense to me. “Miles,” I explained, “your classmates are playing musical chairs. A chair is taken away each time the music stops. You can’t just have the seat you want. That’s not how the game is played.” He no longer cries about musical chairs but his frustration with the basic premise of that game does not lead me to believe that football or basketball would be the natural next step for him.

My husband and I both competed in big time, Division I sports; my husband even played football. We know very few former athletes who are eager to get their children involved in organized sports. If our son at some point becomes interested in sports, fine, but we’re certainly not going to push it; especially now. Neither of us sees the value in creating a commitment to daily practice and weekend competition for toddlers and pre-school age children. I must admit, I even find it ridiculous when the youth sports coaches we know discuss their win-loss records. “So what?” I want to ask them. No serious athletics program goes looking at pee-wee park leagues for recruits. And for good reason: anyone with the money to pay the dues can get their kid a spot on the team; and how good is your six-year-old when he’s teeing off on a three-year-old! Give me a break.

During football season, my neighbors didn’t make it home from practice until well after 8 p.m. most days. Their oldest son, who was on some kind of advanced academic track, got his first C ever as he found managing his first year of middle school and his practice schedule difficult. My neighbors seemed proud to tell us that their son has to stay up until midnight to complete his homework. We weren’t impressed. If you are going to involve your children in youth sports, their lives should be organized so that their school work gets done before practice, but midnight is far too late for a child in middle school to be awake.

It also troubles me that these children who play organized sports seem to do it year round. There is no time when they’re learning an instrument, practicing their lines for a play, sitting still. Sports don’t seem to contribute to the richness of their experiences; they constitute the whole of experience.

For now I say, “let them play tag!” Tag is a perfectly fine game that costs no money and requires no special uniform or equipment. If not tag, then something like it, but the point is, you do not have to sign your toddler up for youth sports because of their size.

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