Chances are, if you’ve taken an entry level psychology course, you’ve heard of Piaget’s Stages Of Cognitive Development. In his research, Piaget has determined that certain cognitive milestones begin to manifest themselves as children pass through these stages. For instance, the ability to reason or the ability to shift from an egocentric viewpoint towards an awareness of more external events.
While these stages and the behavior that has been linked to them is critical in understanding child development, it seems that much of this has been lost when it comes to determining curriculum and age-appropriate activities for youth sports.
In our race to competition, we parents often think that our children will automatically understand more advanced concepts about athletic competition, when in reality, they are not capable, nor interested, in some of the programs in which we place them.
In my work with over 15,000 children in the past twelve years, I have developed a keen sense of the various stages of athletic development, and exactly what children are capable of as they progress through these stages. All of our curriculum is age appropriate, and designed to progress children in a fun, patient manner. It allows them to slowly develop passion, and it’s this passion that will ultimately keep them playing sports.
A classic example of this is the early introduction of children into their local recreational
programs. In the younger age groups, soccer is by far the most popular sport, with millions of children playing.
Typically, we register our kids around the age of 4 or 5. We usually get solicited to coach, and if we cannot, some other unsuspecting parent ends up with your kid on his or her team. We show up on the first day with our coaching handout....several pages of undecipherable diagrams, and for 15 or 20 minutes we feel like things are going fairly well. But now we’re out of ideas, so what do we do? We play “real” soccer.
“Real” soccer is 6 to 10 kids on the field with one soccer ball, two goals. The Beehive starts to move around the field. Parents begin to scream and yell, and we hear things like, “go take the ball from him.”
But wait, wasn’t it just last night that we had “that” conversation with our four year old about sharing his toys? Don’t worry, he’s four, he certainly understands the difference between his toys and a soccer ball.
Most of us think Beehive soccer is pretty cute, but guess what.....it’s not! I have studied what’s taking place, and it’s not pretty. The children on the perimeter, the “normal” children, aren’t getting to actually kick the ball. After a few short minutes, they stop running, they disengage, and begin walking off the field towards their parents. They’re bored. They say things like, “I’m tired” or “I’m thirsty.” Do you think that after 7 or 8 weeks of this that they really want to play again next season? Trust me, I know lots of retired 6 year old soccer players.
Here’s how I propose that we play soccer with 4 & 5 year olds. Make two teams and add goals on the sidelines as well. Now we have 4 goals. Give every child a soccer ball. Tell the children that they must run around and dribble their ball and score as many goals as possible before the whistle. They must also celebrate each goal. Now play for five minutes. When the game is over, bring all of the children together and start asking them how many goals they scored. The first child will tell you that he scored 10 goals. I guarantee you that every child after that has scored more goals. They are born liars. But watch the excitement as they run off the field and tell their parents how many goals they scored.
Now, in your heart of hearts, which game is more likely to keep kids coming back? You know what is interesting, soccer may be the most popular sport among children, but right now, the numbers in soccer begin to diminish by age 8. What’s sad about this is we keep making the same mistakes over and over.
This is a very simple example of age appropriate curriculum not being used for one age group. We are making these same kind of mistakes at every stage on a child’s athletic development. Too much competition at too early an age.
Our fear of having our child be left behind by not keeping up is continuing to fuel the proliferation of inappropriate programming. Parents must have the courage to slow the process down and return youth sports to children. We must keep it FUN!
- Steve Locker