Put me in, coach! Whether it’s on a field, a court, rink, or a diamond, kids sports are part of growing up.
In 75 percent of U.S. households, at least 1 child participates in an organized sport, according to a Project Play (1).
That amounts to almost 60 percent of the country’s youth ready to play.
Though data is a little harder to come by, sports are just as popular in other countries (2). In India, it’s cricket. In other parts of Asia, it’s badminton. And everywhere, it seems, kids are playing soccer.
If you're a parent of youngsters, you might be wondering:
What are kids sports all about?
Are they right for my children?
What's the best way to get my kids involved?
And most importantly, will they be safe and pressure-free?
Everyone's situation is a little bit different. But, before you decide on your kids' sports, if any, consider the benefits.
Benefits of Kids Sports
Kids have an abundance of energy. They are moving from the time they wake up almost to the time they go to bed.
At the same time, parents want to see that energy diverted toward learning about the way the world works.
Activities such as organized kids’ sports can help.
Let’s take a quick look at how the world of athletics will shape your child's health and happiness and teach lessons that last a lifetime.
Get them to the field on time. You won’t regret it.
The screen generation faces many temptations to stay in place from video games, movies, texting with friends, and other distractions. The lack of activity can create health problems down the road.
But get them involved in sports, and you’ll be activating their muscles -- and not just the ones in their arms and legs. The heart is a muscle, too!
Sports means moving your body, and moving your body leads to improvements in cardiovascular fitness (3). In the near-term, playing a sport will help them grow by strengthening their little hearts.
And the benefits accumulate. Learn to stay active, and you're increasing your chances of staving off heart disease, high blood pressure, and other ailments.
In part, that's true because activity during kids sports pays dividends in terms of weight loss.
Getting your heart pumping means you're burning calories -- something you cannot do while sitting still on your Xbox or PlayStation.
The fact is, the benefits go beyond the heart. Staying active during sports keeps your lungs in shape and helps by building a solid skeleton with the strongest of bones.
The physical payback from kids’ sports is enormous. But that’s not all.
Kids sports also teach crucial life skills and provide support for emotional development (4).
Playing on a team requires learning not only to get along with others but also how to collaborate positively. Remember, there's no "I" in team.
In many children, sports also bring out confidence, self-discipline, and leadership skills (5). Not everyone will go on to be captain. But getting through a game or a season successfully goes a long way toward a resilient attitude.
Perhaps you’re worried about putting too much pressure on your little ones. That’s certainly a consideration.
Make sure that the activity you choose is supported by good organization, excellent coaching, and a positive environment.
However, don’t be afraid to see them fall. Great growth comes from experiencing high-pressure situations and failing.
At some point in their lives, every child will go through the experience of a job interview. If you know how to harness the butterflies in your stomach from sports, it will go better for you.
The softer benefits don't just go to the kids. Being part of the experience can have positives for the entire family (6). Being together, even if it’s just cheering together for your little one, makes for a happy household.
Best Kids Sports to Join
Which sport should you pursue for your child? It's a good question -- and not one anyone can answer for every family.
Every child is different, as is every family’s circumstance. And all sports have their pluses and minuses. Only you will know what’s best in your case.
To help, though, the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program created the Healthy Sports Index (7). It's an online tool that looks at the pros and cons of 10 popular sports for the target population.
You can adjust various factors in the tool to account for what's most important to you. The factors to consider are physical activity, psychosocial benefits, and safety.
The tool allows you to click and read more about each sport. The tracker provides information on the types of physical agility needed to succeed in each and recommended alternatives.
We picked out three from the list to discuss more in depth. Since we’re focusing on children between the first and fifth grades, we thought it’s probably too soon for organized cross country or track and field.
Baseball is America’s pastime for a reason. It’s a rite of summer, drawing millions of kids outside to swing bats, run bases, and field ground balls.
The Health Sports Index ranks baseball tenth out of 10 sports, though mainly because playing the game requires lots of downtime between plays. When there’s activity, it’s intense; however, many times, players are waiting for something to happen (probably two-thirds of the time, HSI says).
Still, the HSI likes that baseball requires balance, reactionary capabilities, hand-eye coordination, and many basic movement skills. The sport is considered the fifth safest on the list of 10 sports.
The analog for girls is softball. That sport ranks ninth best out of 10 for girls but very high for psychosocial development.
In either case, boys or girls, get started in the sport by finding a T-ball league. You can probably find one through your local town recreation association or even a church league.
Setting aside the data-oriented approach, what are some of the intangible reasons for choosing baseball?
Well, for one, the teams are big -- nine to each side. Anyone can participate and succeed -- you don't need to be the biggest, strongest, or fastest kid on the block.
It's also hard to resist a sport that such an essential part of American history (8).
Parents have always considered soccer (or futbol depending on your nationality and country) to be one of the best kids sports.
And the Healthy Sports Index agrees.
The survey ranks soccer the fourth-best sport for boys and the fifth-best for girls out of 10. (9)
Soccer is a sport that requires vigorous exercise about 50% of the time during a game. It rewards footwork, stamina, leg strength, and teamwork, the HSI survey suggests.
The injury rates in soccer for girls are the highest of the 10 suggested sports, and seventh out of tenth for boys (10).
Yet consider also the intangibles of soccer when deciding on which are the best kids sports for your family (11).
It's a game enjoyed around the world that can be played almost anywhere and requires minimal equipment. If you have two goals, a ball, and the right shoes, you're good to go.
Soccer also enables broad participation.
A full game takes 22 players!
We wanted to include a game that probably doesn’t get enough recognition as one of the best for physical and emotional development.
Lacrosse is also one of the nation's oldest games, which adds a historical component to the experience. The Healthy Sports Index ranks lacrosse ninth for boys and eighth for girls, out of the 10 kids sports it reviewed.
You should know upfront that lacrosse involves more contact than you might think.
HSI ranks lacrosse as the ninth safest sport for boys and eighth safest for girls out of the 10 kids sports on the list.
But it also requires maximum activity from participants...
Players are vigorously active about 40% of the time.
Lacrosse is a fast-moving game that calls for hand-eye coordination, endurance, balance, speed, flexibility, and agility, according to the HSI social scientists.
One of the significant intangibles of lacrosse is that it develops the full athlete (12). To be successful in lacrosse, you must build speed, strength, and coordination, while calling on various skills utilized more prominently in other sports.
And teamwork is paramount, which is, in our view, one of the best reasons to involve your children in kids sports (13).
Here’s the Pitch
Parents have other choices in addition to soccer, baseball/softball, and lacrosse. Running, swimming, wrestling, basketball, tennis, all have attributes to help your little one gain confidence and grow.
Should you take the leap with them or not? That’s a question you’ll have to work through as a family, based on what you know about your child’s physical and emotional maturity.
Tools like the Health Sports Index can help but aren't a replacement for real experience and understanding of the world around us.
If you’re leaning towards getting in, your best bet is to check with your kids’ school, town’s recreation league, church leagues, or even consult physical education teachers at your local school. They’ll point you in the right direction.
And don’t be afraid to get involved yourself. Our youth need caring parents with perspective to realize the benefits of organized kids sports.
One final word: Our list focuses on warm-weather sports. To learn more about kids activities in the winter, read our guide (14) to cold-weather kids sports.
What sports do your kids play and why? Let us know in the comments below.