When Should Kids Start Playing Sports? Here’s What the Research Says

written by EMILY SHEPARD
what age to start playing sports"
what age to start playing sports
Source: Canva
Source: Canva

My daughter and I walked into the crowded gymnasium greeted by the sight and sound of elementary-age girls running, laughing, and singing. I anticipated about 30 girls to be in attendance at the cheer camp I’d registered my daughter for—but 120 girls signed up. 

I asked my 4-year-old if she wanted to join the warm-up activity or if she wanted to watch for a little bit. She decided to watch, clinging tightly to my hand. After she became more comfortable with her surroundings, she joined one of the breakout groups for a few minutes. I stayed where she could see me, gave her frequent thumbs up, and we left as soon as she was ready.

As one of five sports-loving-children, my second home was the baseball fields growing up. My dad coached us in every sport we played and is now always seen in the stands to watch his own kids coach or grandchildren play. I’ve also been a middle school and high school coach for eight years. Youth athletics holds a special place in my heart. So I experienced both guilt and relief when my husband and I decided not to sign our daughter up for cheerleading or any other fall sport. Our daughter’s readiness at age 4 (and our desire to leave our schedule open for plenty of free play) motivated our decision. If and when my daughters are ready for sports, we will get in the game with enthusiasm. But how do you know what time is the right time to start competitive sports? Read on.



When Should Children Start Playing Sports?

Because I have experienced the benefits of athletics firsthand and witnessed the positive impact on my players, I believe strongly in understanding developmental readiness and nurturing the aspect of sports that matters most: Fun! Here we’ll dive into some factors to take into consideration when deciding when to sign your child up for youth sports.


Their Age

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most children are not ready for organized sports until they are at least 6 years old. The AAP states that children younger “may not possess sufficient skills and attention span, even for simple organized sports.” There! You are absolved of all guilt for not signing your toddler up for every sport and activity available. 

Toddlers’ developmental unreadiness for sports is evident in their attention span, limited fundamental skills, and even in their vision maturity. According to a report by Dr. Laura Purcell found in the National Library of Medicine, vision in early childhood is not mature until age 6 or 7, which makes it difficult to track and judge the speed of moving objects. From ages 6 to 9, tracking is improved, but still limited. (This fact shocked me and made me wonder how many parents know this crucial information.) 


Focus on free play during the preschool years

Instead of starting sports during preschool years, the AAP recommends a focus on free play: “Ample opportunity for free play is necessary, especially in the preschool and elementary school years when the basic skills needed for organized sports are being developed and combined.” 

Mayo Clinic mirrors the AAP’s advice and states that children ages 2 to 5 are not ready for organized sports. At that age, “unstructured free play is best.” 

Activities that are suitable for preschool-age children include:

  • Running
  • Tumbling
  • Throwing and catching
  • Swimming
  • Riding a tricycle


Introduce entry-level sports and activities for ages 6-9

Also according to the report by Dr. Purcell, kids are not developmentally ready for competition until approximately age 9. Therefore, the emphasis of sports between ages 6 to 9 should be on learning new skills, making friends, and having fun. (And when kids are old enough to think about winning and losing, the focus of sports should still be on fun.) Some activities that are good entry-level sports for children ages 6-9 include:

  • Soccer
  • Baseball
  • Swimming
  • Running
  • Gymnastics
  • Dance
  • Skating
  • Racquet Sports
  • Non-contact Martial Arts



Child Readiness

Does your child show an eagerness to regularly participate in a sport for longer than 10 minutes? Ask them, “Do you want to play soccer every week?” And before you sign them up, go play soccer with them several times. Find out if you can take them to a practice or camp to get a feel for it before committing to a full season. The decision to start sports should be a family decision, starting with your child’s interest. I’ve witnessed many students and players forced to play a sport they hated or were not ready for, and it was sad to see kids spending what little free time they had doing something they didn’t love.


Attention Span 

When considering if, when, and what sport to sign your child up for, consider their attention span and the attention span required for that sport. Remember that research says most children do not have the attention span for organized sports until they are 6 years old. However, kids mature differently, so your 6-year-old might not be ready for certain sports.

All sports require some level of focus, the ability to follow directions, and an understanding of the game, but some more than others. Let’s use baseball as an example. Not everyone is involved in a baseball game at all times, there are many different rules to understand, and for safety reasons alone, paying attention is crucial. For these reasons, it’s unfair to expect a 4-year-old to stand at third base for twenty minutes, pay attention, and be ready to field or throw a ball when they aren’t developmentally ready for these tasks. However, that doesn’t mean your young child can’t go outside and play catch with you; they might not catch many balls, but they will enjoy being active and spending quality time with you. Soccer, in comparison to baseball, is more straightforward, and there is always something to do—run!



Skills Required 

It’s also important that your child can perform the skills required to participate in the sport, or is at least ready to learn these skills. If not, there will be more frustration and less enjoyment for everyone. Let’s use baseball and soccer as examples again. In baseball, kids need to be able to throw, catch, field a ball, and hit a ball with a bat; all these skills involve the ability to track a ball and combine various fundamental skills. In soccer, kids just need to be able to run and kick. (I’m oversimplifying, but you get the idea.)


Time Commitment 

Before signing up your child for anything, make sure you understand the time commitment and have a plan to get them to and from practice and games. Most recreational youth sports practice once a week and play a game once a week. This varies by age and level of competition, but in my quest to get my daughter involved without over-scheduling, I’ve yet to find a sport that meets fewer than twice a week. A busy schedule also means less time for important free and unstructured play.

After learning the practice and game schedule, decide if that’s something that your family can make work without stretching yourself too thin. Say YES to what your child loves and what you have time for and NO to everything else. 



Your child’s coach sets the tone for the season, potentially their enthusiasm for sports, and possibly the longevity of their athletic career. It is important that you and your child like the coach. Learning a new sport should be fun, and the coaching style should reflect that. One negative experience, such as getting yelled at, could significantly change your child’s enjoyment of the sport. The right coach is also essential for proper skill development and for long-term commitment.


when to start youth sports

Source: Canva


How to Help Your Kids Enjoy Playing Organized Sports


Rethink Quitting 

I was raised to never quit something once I started, and I’m guessing many of you were too. However, becoming a mom has shifted this resolution. Depending on the scenario and commitment, I believe quitting can be a great thing. For example, a job you hate, a habit that doesn’t serve you, a toxic relationship, OR a sport that causes a child more anxiety than fun. Time is precious and childhood is short, so don’t commit to a weekly activity if it brings more stress than joy. Quitting isn’t always the best option, but sometimes quitting takes a tremendous amount of courage.


Avoid Early Sport Specialization

Mayo Clinic  and the AAP caution against early sport specialization (intensely focusing on one sport) because it can lead to early burnout and injuries. Let your child try different sports (as well as other activities!) to strengthen various muscles, learn new skills, and see what they enjoy doing most. Sport specialization should not start until the teenage years, and only if your child is passionate about excelling in one sport. The NLM states that “young athletes participating in more hours of sport each week than their age in years and those spending more than twice as much time in organized sports than in free play are at increased risk of suffering a serious overuse injury.” 


Final Thoughts

Research shows (and I passionately believe!) that the benefits of playing sports are extensive: improved physical health, mental health, social skills, and academic performance, just to name a few. However, there are two sides to every coin, and as a coach, teacher, mom, and involved aunt, I’ve seen the positive and negative side of youth sports. Children play sports at a younger age and experience competition and pressure to learn skills before they are physically and mentally ready. This, combined with other factors, is leading to earlier sports dropout. So, how can we keep kids involved in sports longer to reap all the benefits? Simple! Keep it fun. “Parental support for organized sports in general, with focus on development and fun instead of winning, has emerged as a key factor in the athlete’s enjoyment of sports,” states the AAP.

Sports Nutrition 101: How to Fuel Your Kids for Physical Activity
Learn More