By Katie Moosbrugger

If your children are out of the baby phase, chances are good they are either enrolled in some type of after school activity, or you’re thinking about it. If organized sports are on your agenda, you might want to consider the age of your child before you jump in the game.

Not too long ago I interviewed Dr. Bill Satterwhite, a former pediatrician who is now the Chief Health and Wellness Officer at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, on the whole topic of when to start a child in organized sports. I grew up playing sports, and as a mother, I am eager to share my love for all-things-athletic with my children. But, as Dr. Satterwhite points out, sometimes it’s better to stay on the sidelines until you AND your child are fully ready. The following is our interview…

Q: In your opinion, what’s a good age for kids to start competitive sports, and why?

A: The move to start kids in organized sports as early as three or four is a very recent trend, dating back to the 1990s. People thought it was good for their children to be involved in organized physical activity and because many thought it would make their child ‘better’ at those sports in the long run. While the social aspects of early organized sports are good, in reality eight years of age is really the appropriate time for kids to start organized sports from a developmental perspective. At eight, kids can understand rules, as well as winning and losing. By contrast, a five or six-year-old wants everything in the world to work out their way, so losing at a game is particularly difficult for them to understand developmentally, and they often cry when they lose. Rules like ‘out of bounds’ or ‘fouls’ also don’t make much sense to kids younger than eight. For the typical four to seven-year old, ‘out of bounds’ means the ball is in the woods, not just over some white line! Also, kids younger than eight have trouble understanding what they are really supposed to be doing on the field; thus, the need for lots of ‘helpful instructions’ yelled by parents from the sidelines!

Q: What sports would you recommend to eight-year-old children?

A: Once a child turns eight, any sport is appropriate – even football! The real question for boys that want to play football (and for mothers who don’t want them to play!) is not when they should start playing; rather, when should they stop playing. Pre-pubertal boys almost never get seriously hurt playing football, because the kids are smaller and hit each other with less force than when they boys are bigger. Once the boys start getting bigger and faster and stronger, that’s (oddly enough) when they start getting hurt.

Q: Is there a sport you’d recommend for children younger than eight years old?

A: The most important thing for children less than eight years old is a lot of time for unstructured play. Free-time/unstructured free play (non-electronic, non-screen time play) has been shown to increase attention span, executive functioning and social skills in children, and many of these skills learned (or not learned, as the case may be) through play continue on into adulthood. When children on a playground are given a ball and told to go play, they grow and learn because they have to make up – and agree on – the game they are going to play, determine the teams (and kids try to make them fair and even), and decide on the rules (When is the ball really “out?”), and then enforce the rules (as opposed to having an adult in striped shirts there to solve all the questions around possible infractions).

Great interview, Dr. Satterwhite! Thank you for your time.

So, if you do have a child who is ready for organized sports and/or after-school activities, our Triad Sports Directory  is a great place to start.  We have listed some of the Triad’s favorite places for children’s sports and activities.  If you have a sport or activity to add, please comment on our directory or email and we will add it to our growing list.