Preschooler doesn't like team sports? NBD

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 16, 2012 06:00 AM

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We have an only child, four year old son. He is fun and happy and does well in preschool. His issue is he seems disinterested in any extra curricular activities. While we don't care if he is the best of the bunch, we want him to learn activities and how to be part of a team. He has taken swim, baseball and soccer classes (not at the same time, one a season) and hasn't taken to any. He is ok once he gets there but complains the entire time going. Sometimes he just refuses to participate once there. Are we doing something wrong? is this too soon? thanks

From: Laurie, Newton MA

Dear Laurie,

He's a preschooler; last I heard, not belong on a team is not a prerequisite for kindergarten. Just because all these activities are available doesn't mean they are necessary or important. In fact, I would argue that they are neither at this age. Is your son in preschool at least three mornings a week? That's all the socialization he needs; it's plenty of opportunity for him to engage in all those important preschool socializing activities.

At this age, the point of these extra activities should be for fun, not to learn skills, or to figure out areas of interest or ability, and certainly not in the hopes of putting a child on a track that might someday lead to a varsity team and college scholarship. So why wouldn't it be fun for him when it seems like it's fun for everyone else? (Keep in mind you have no idea how much cajoling it takes other parents to get their kids there...)

Here are just a few reasons:

1. Some kids have a low threshold for noise and/or smells. Were the swim or soccer lessons indoors? Noise can echo or ricochet off the walls. The smell of chlorine can be overwhelming, especially but not only indoors.

2. Some kids are fearless, others are not. They worry about getting hurt. They don't like being part of a crush of bodies, even if the bodies belong to other kids the same relative size and shape. And what if there's one kid who's bigger? Even a little bit bigger can loom large.

3. Everything you mention is an athletic activity. If socialization is what you're after, what about arts and crafts, or music? What about a non-team sport, like skating lessons?

Back off, Laurie. Lower your expectations and absolutely don't convey a sense of disappointment to your son. Stop pushing activities on him. Let him ask for an activity. Doing it with a buddy is always a good idea. Most of all, don't worry. Your son is only 4. Just because he doesn't like a group sport now doesn't mean he never will. Just because he isn't drawn to athletics now doesn't mean he won't be athletic later. And, btw, so what if he isn't, on both counts? All in all, all of this is Not a Big Deal. (Oh yeah, and where did his dad fall on this spectrum?)

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14 comments so far...
  1. Barbara, your advice is awesome today!

    Laurie, have you considered your child really isn't interested in sports at all, so even trying different sports won't matter? I like Barbara's suggestion of trying something more artistic, like crafts. Or, have you thought about asking your child what he's interested in? Even at 4 - he's got some ideas he should be able to articulate. There are plenty of places you can take him for one day craft activities - see if he takes to it. Or, just let him be who he is and wait a while before signing up for another sport. After all, he is only 4.

    Good luck.

    Posted by Lily- May 16, 12 07:36 AM
  1. He is only 4. Let him be.

    Posted by jd May 16, 12 07:47 AM
  1. Excellent and spot on, Barbara. LW - he's FOUR. Be happy that he decides what he wants for snack time without changing his mind 30 times. Yikes.

    Posted by Phe May 16, 12 10:59 AM
  1. Just let him do what he likes, there is no need to rush. Both of my kids were like that when they were 5-7 years old. We thought it was good to expose them to things, and could tell one of them was very athletic, but when we realized that signing them up for classes, teams and trying to force the issue only made them more resistant, we backed off and didn't make them do it. I think in our case, they were both kind of shy, and didn't like having to "perform" in front of people, or to be told when it was time to play soccer, etc. We suggested trying sports once in a while, but never forced it. They both loved to dance at home, but didn't want dance classes either. However, they've never turned down any type of art or music activity.

    Now, my oldest still has no interest in (and is not particularly good at) playing any team sports (but is into many other things), and our 9 year old can't get enough. He plays constantly at home, school, and on a few different teams. Nothing we did could have truly changed what either of them love doing.

    Your son may love or hate sports, but it's far too young to tell at the moment.

    Posted by mom2boys May 16, 12 11:01 AM
  1. But if he's not doing every possible activity each season, she won't be mom enough and it will reflect poorly on her in the Newton social circles.
    Surely by this age he should not only be participating in team sports, but he should be the captain of every team!

    Gosh lady, lay off the kid and yourself. Let him go to preschool, eat mudpies with the other kids, and have fun. All too soon he'll be thrown into the real world where you constantly have things to wprry about. For now, let him be the 4 year old that he is.

    Posted by some-guy May 16, 12 11:21 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's advice for the most part. However, I believe swimming lessons fall in to a different category. Swimming isn't so much about team sports and socializing as it is a life skill, and the earlier one learns how to do it, the better. I started lessons at age 4 (along with two or three other activities) and complained bitterly about swimming. It was more work than the other activities, and more of a hassle. But as an older child and teenager, I was able to have more fun at pool parties and class trips to water parks than friends who couldn't swim. There was also the water safety element, which I didn't care about then and am much more conscious of now. At 37, I'm grateful that my mom ignored my complaints about swimming.

    Posted by Amy May 16, 12 11:30 AM
  1. Come on, he's only 4. Do you really need to be signing him up for anything?? Also, nothing gets me riled up more than the argument that "everyone else is having fun" or "everyone else is doing it." Just because other kids like it doesn't mean that your kid has to. Every child is different. Besides, most kids of that age really don't care what other kids are doing. They're way to self-centered at that stage. Also, keep in mind that for any age, team activities aren't for everyone. Some kids excel at individual athletic pursuits like skating, dance, skiing, gymnastics, or even karate. Yes, figure skating and dance are fine for boys because maybe he likes doing things to music. Or you never know, maybe he's a musician. Just let him lead the way. Keep him out of lessons for now, because he'll just learn that they're unpleasant and loathe them for life. Soccer and basebally, I should add, are highly overrated. Ick. Swimming, though, is an important life skill, so I think that's a good idea, but maybe wait another year before continuing it.

    Posted by Rachel B May 16, 12 11:37 AM
  1. At this age, you just need to provide opportunities for physical activity, preferably unstructured. Take him to the park a lot, teach him to ride a bike and go on rides with him, invite his friends over and kick a ball around (without having it be teams or competition), go to the beach or pool and get him comfortable and having fun in the water. He does need exercise, and he does need to develop balance and coordination, but the organized activities should come later. Kids need more time for unstructured play - it allows them to develop the capacity to entertain themselves and develop their imaginations as well as get exercise.

    Posted by alien57 May 16, 12 01:04 PM
  1. A slight disagreement: He doesn't NEED to be in any particular sports, activities, or classes. He does NEED to continue to learn to socialize with peers. As a first grade teacher, some of my only-child-students have an uphill battle learning to interact with other kids. They are bright, cheerful, smart, personable kids when with adults, but have difficulty interacting with other kids without a parent present because they're used to being in adult settings.

    That's a broad generalization, and this child may have a pile of neighbors to play with and have other kids around all the time. It's just one of those concerns that you keep an eye on, just like you make sure that a child with 1-10 siblings gets their 'mom-time' and 'dad-time.'

    It's okay to try an activity 3 times and then back out. Kind of like the 3-bite rule of tasting something: Enough to get over the initial 'yuck' of not knowing anyone and discomfort of not knowing a skill but not long enough to be torturous if he really doesn't like it. Find rec-based activities so you don't break the bank on it: Library nights, town-sponsored Parks and Rec soccer.

    Is he tired from school on the days of activities? Maybe a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon class would find him in a more energetic mood.

    When he 'refuses to participate,' are you standing there while he hugs your legs saying, "Go, go! Just go!" I have some students still at 6-7 that will cry until mom/dad/grandma are out of eyesight, and 10 minutes later are happy as a clam. Have you tried staying out of eyesight for the activity (even if you drive the car out of the lot and drive it back in to park in another spot to watch the soccer game). It may give you some insight on how he functions when he doesn't know you're around. I know it tears at the heartstrings, but the child learns that they CAN function without a parent and that the parent WILL pick them up. I'm less inclined to think this is what it is if he's happy at school, though.

    Just a few more ideas. Good luck!

    Posted by None May 16, 12 03:29 PM
  1. I'm going to second the swimming thing, with a warning. I lifeguarded and taught swim lessons for many years. Swimming is an important life skill and it's really important that a child learn how to swim proficiently for safety and for fitness. We had a lot of older adults who never learned how to swim and suddenly found themselves arthritic or injured and in need of pool-based exercise, and who couldn't avail themselves of the option.

    However, with kids swim lessons, it's really important that the child be ready to participate, that the setting and teacher work for the child, and that the parent isn't projecting all over the kid. Some parents are so pushy about "see, it's not scary!" or "don't drown!" that the kid freaks out. Some instructors' personalities just aren't a good match for a kid, and some classes and pool environments just don't work for an introvert. Private lessons might help, lessons during a less-busy time might help, but often, so does waiting until kindergarten.

    Posted by AP May 17, 12 03:26 PM
  1. I agree with all the opinions and will only add this: if, as your child gets older, you seek out team sports, make sure that the organizations and coaches involved really understand the age they are working with. Even children over 5 will not enjoy practices that involve a lot of waiting, long explanations and unrealistic expectations. A "skills and drills" type class may be a more interactive and fun introduction to a new sport that joining team. If you are thinking about a team for your child, attend a few practices firsthand to see how child friendly the process is. If most of the kids seem bored, tuned out and restless, chances are your child will be too.

    Posted by MotherMayI May 17, 12 05:56 PM
  1. My experience has been that four year olds can't even actually really play "on a team" in a meaningful way. For one thing, most of them are barely coordinated enough and for another thing, they don't have enough skills to make "team play" possible. My kid is six and I'm only starting to see these things coming together for his age group.

    I agree with everyone who has said to relax. Do activities that are enjoyable, try the team sports in low key, age appropriate environments (the Y is awesome for this), and have fun playing "soccer" and "basketball" or whatever at home so he learns how to play. The team aspect will come with time.

    Posted by smK May 18, 12 07:11 AM
  1. Relax and enjoy him. I will only add my children never got interested in team sports, although they tried them. However, they love camping, hiking, biking, fencing and scuba diving. You can guess mine are much older now. Funny thing is the colleges were very interested in them due to thier odd choices. Let him find the sports (even if they are outside of the box) that he is interested in. You and he will enjoy it more for that reason and if it becomes the team sports you love great but it will be his choice. For now let him be little. I agree with all the posters who said swimming is something all of us should learn to do for safety.

    Posted by aueudumu May 18, 12 11:56 AM
  1. My boys are 10 and 11 and they still hate team sports. They wanted to try them, so we dabbled in soccer, baseball, and street hockey. The problem is that my kids don't fundamentally care if the team wins or not, which makes them sort of unpopular with the rabid sports crowd. They are hugely active - they bike, build things, climb trees, and so on, but they just don't like team sports. They love scouting - camping, hiking, and other fun activities. They play violin/viola and do lots of art work around the house. They started kung fu a year ago and love that too. Kids absolutely do not need team sports if they're not into it.

    And yes, swimming is a good skill. But truly, kids will not instantly perish if they haven't mastered it by age 4. I tried putting my kids in swim lessons at 3 and 4. They were freaking terrified. My youngest literally refused to get into the pool at all. So I held off for a few years. Actually, what got them to enjoy swimming the most was being at a vacation house with a pool, putting swim 'bubbles' on them and letting them go at it with a grownup nearby, but not telling them how to do it. After they had figured out the basics on their own, then they were receptive to swim lessons at about 7 and 8 years old. We did it for maybe a year, and they learned a few basic strokes, but really never progressed beyond that. So we stopped, and just took them to the beach and the pool a lot, and watched them. When they got old enough for summer scout day camp, they hated being in the lowest swimming group, so they finally got serious about it so they could pass the swimmer test and go out into the deep water. But pushing them into a slog of swimming lessons at the Y that they hated wasn't going to make them better swimmers.

    My mom put it best: She got to 65 without ever learning to put her face in the water. The kids weren't going to expire if they weren't proficient swimmers by age 5.

    Posted by BMS May 19, 12 11:27 AM
 
14 comments so far...
  1. Barbara, your advice is awesome today!

    Laurie, have you considered your child really isn't interested in sports at all, so even trying different sports won't matter? I like Barbara's suggestion of trying something more artistic, like crafts. Or, have you thought about asking your child what he's interested in? Even at 4 - he's got some ideas he should be able to articulate. There are plenty of places you can take him for one day craft activities - see if he takes to it. Or, just let him be who he is and wait a while before signing up for another sport. After all, he is only 4.

    Good luck.

    Posted by Lily- May 16, 12 07:36 AM
  1. He is only 4. Let him be.

    Posted by jd May 16, 12 07:47 AM
  1. Excellent and spot on, Barbara. LW - he's FOUR. Be happy that he decides what he wants for snack time without changing his mind 30 times. Yikes.

    Posted by Phe May 16, 12 10:59 AM
  1. Just let him do what he likes, there is no need to rush. Both of my kids were like that when they were 5-7 years old. We thought it was good to expose them to things, and could tell one of them was very athletic, but when we realized that signing them up for classes, teams and trying to force the issue only made them more resistant, we backed off and didn't make them do it. I think in our case, they were both kind of shy, and didn't like having to "perform" in front of people, or to be told when it was time to play soccer, etc. We suggested trying sports once in a while, but never forced it. They both loved to dance at home, but didn't want dance classes either. However, they've never turned down any type of art or music activity.

    Now, my oldest still has no interest in (and is not particularly good at) playing any team sports (but is into many other things), and our 9 year old can't get enough. He plays constantly at home, school, and on a few different teams. Nothing we did could have truly changed what either of them love doing.

    Your son may love or hate sports, but it's far too young to tell at the moment.

    Posted by mom2boys May 16, 12 11:01 AM
  1. But if he's not doing every possible activity each season, she won't be mom enough and it will reflect poorly on her in the Newton social circles.
    Surely by this age he should not only be participating in team sports, but he should be the captain of every team!

    Gosh lady, lay off the kid and yourself. Let him go to preschool, eat mudpies with the other kids, and have fun. All too soon he'll be thrown into the real world where you constantly have things to wprry about. For now, let him be the 4 year old that he is.

    Posted by some-guy May 16, 12 11:21 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's advice for the most part. However, I believe swimming lessons fall in to a different category. Swimming isn't so much about team sports and socializing as it is a life skill, and the earlier one learns how to do it, the better. I started lessons at age 4 (along with two or three other activities) and complained bitterly about swimming. It was more work than the other activities, and more of a hassle. But as an older child and teenager, I was able to have more fun at pool parties and class trips to water parks than friends who couldn't swim. There was also the water safety element, which I didn't care about then and am much more conscious of now. At 37, I'm grateful that my mom ignored my complaints about swimming.

    Posted by Amy May 16, 12 11:30 AM
  1. Come on, he's only 4. Do you really need to be signing him up for anything?? Also, nothing gets me riled up more than the argument that "everyone else is having fun" or "everyone else is doing it." Just because other kids like it doesn't mean that your kid has to. Every child is different. Besides, most kids of that age really don't care what other kids are doing. They're way to self-centered at that stage. Also, keep in mind that for any age, team activities aren't for everyone. Some kids excel at individual athletic pursuits like skating, dance, skiing, gymnastics, or even karate. Yes, figure skating and dance are fine for boys because maybe he likes doing things to music. Or you never know, maybe he's a musician. Just let him lead the way. Keep him out of lessons for now, because he'll just learn that they're unpleasant and loathe them for life. Soccer and basebally, I should add, are highly overrated. Ick. Swimming, though, is an important life skill, so I think that's a good idea, but maybe wait another year before continuing it.

    Posted by Rachel B May 16, 12 11:37 AM
  1. At this age, you just need to provide opportunities for physical activity, preferably unstructured. Take him to the park a lot, teach him to ride a bike and go on rides with him, invite his friends over and kick a ball around (without having it be teams or competition), go to the beach or pool and get him comfortable and having fun in the water. He does need exercise, and he does need to develop balance and coordination, but the organized activities should come later. Kids need more time for unstructured play - it allows them to develop the capacity to entertain themselves and develop their imaginations as well as get exercise.

    Posted by alien57 May 16, 12 01:04 PM
  1. A slight disagreement: He doesn't NEED to be in any particular sports, activities, or classes. He does NEED to continue to learn to socialize with peers. As a first grade teacher, some of my only-child-students have an uphill battle learning to interact with other kids. They are bright, cheerful, smart, personable kids when with adults, but have difficulty interacting with other kids without a parent present because they're used to being in adult settings.

    That's a broad generalization, and this child may have a pile of neighbors to play with and have other kids around all the time. It's just one of those concerns that you keep an eye on, just like you make sure that a child with 1-10 siblings gets their 'mom-time' and 'dad-time.'

    It's okay to try an activity 3 times and then back out. Kind of like the 3-bite rule of tasting something: Enough to get over the initial 'yuck' of not knowing anyone and discomfort of not knowing a skill but not long enough to be torturous if he really doesn't like it. Find rec-based activities so you don't break the bank on it: Library nights, town-sponsored Parks and Rec soccer.

    Is he tired from school on the days of activities? Maybe a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon class would find him in a more energetic mood.

    When he 'refuses to participate,' are you standing there while he hugs your legs saying, "Go, go! Just go!" I have some students still at 6-7 that will cry until mom/dad/grandma are out of eyesight, and 10 minutes later are happy as a clam. Have you tried staying out of eyesight for the activity (even if you drive the car out of the lot and drive it back in to park in another spot to watch the soccer game). It may give you some insight on how he functions when he doesn't know you're around. I know it tears at the heartstrings, but the child learns that they CAN function without a parent and that the parent WILL pick them up. I'm less inclined to think this is what it is if he's happy at school, though.

    Just a few more ideas. Good luck!

    Posted by None May 16, 12 03:29 PM
  1. I'm going to second the swimming thing, with a warning. I lifeguarded and taught swim lessons for many years. Swimming is an important life skill and it's really important that a child learn how to swim proficiently for safety and for fitness. We had a lot of older adults who never learned how to swim and suddenly found themselves arthritic or injured and in need of pool-based exercise, and who couldn't avail themselves of the option.

    However, with kids swim lessons, it's really important that the child be ready to participate, that the setting and teacher work for the child, and that the parent isn't projecting all over the kid. Some parents are so pushy about "see, it's not scary!" or "don't drown!" that the kid freaks out. Some instructors' personalities just aren't a good match for a kid, and some classes and pool environments just don't work for an introvert. Private lessons might help, lessons during a less-busy time might help, but often, so does waiting until kindergarten.

    Posted by AP May 17, 12 03:26 PM
  1. I agree with all the opinions and will only add this: if, as your child gets older, you seek out team sports, make sure that the organizations and coaches involved really understand the age they are working with. Even children over 5 will not enjoy practices that involve a lot of waiting, long explanations and unrealistic expectations. A "skills and drills" type class may be a more interactive and fun introduction to a new sport that joining team. If you are thinking about a team for your child, attend a few practices firsthand to see how child friendly the process is. If most of the kids seem bored, tuned out and restless, chances are your child will be too.

    Posted by MotherMayI May 17, 12 05:56 PM
  1. My experience has been that four year olds can't even actually really play "on a team" in a meaningful way. For one thing, most of them are barely coordinated enough and for another thing, they don't have enough skills to make "team play" possible. My kid is six and I'm only starting to see these things coming together for his age group.

    I agree with everyone who has said to relax. Do activities that are enjoyable, try the team sports in low key, age appropriate environments (the Y is awesome for this), and have fun playing "soccer" and "basketball" or whatever at home so he learns how to play. The team aspect will come with time.

    Posted by smK May 18, 12 07:11 AM
  1. Relax and enjoy him. I will only add my children never got interested in team sports, although they tried them. However, they love camping, hiking, biking, fencing and scuba diving. You can guess mine are much older now. Funny thing is the colleges were very interested in them due to thier odd choices. Let him find the sports (even if they are outside of the box) that he is interested in. You and he will enjoy it more for that reason and if it becomes the team sports you love great but it will be his choice. For now let him be little. I agree with all the posters who said swimming is something all of us should learn to do for safety.

    Posted by aueudumu May 18, 12 11:56 AM
  1. My boys are 10 and 11 and they still hate team sports. They wanted to try them, so we dabbled in soccer, baseball, and street hockey. The problem is that my kids don't fundamentally care if the team wins or not, which makes them sort of unpopular with the rabid sports crowd. They are hugely active - they bike, build things, climb trees, and so on, but they just don't like team sports. They love scouting - camping, hiking, and other fun activities. They play violin/viola and do lots of art work around the house. They started kung fu a year ago and love that too. Kids absolutely do not need team sports if they're not into it.

    And yes, swimming is a good skill. But truly, kids will not instantly perish if they haven't mastered it by age 4. I tried putting my kids in swim lessons at 3 and 4. They were freaking terrified. My youngest literally refused to get into the pool at all. So I held off for a few years. Actually, what got them to enjoy swimming the most was being at a vacation house with a pool, putting swim 'bubbles' on them and letting them go at it with a grownup nearby, but not telling them how to do it. After they had figured out the basics on their own, then they were receptive to swim lessons at about 7 and 8 years old. We did it for maybe a year, and they learned a few basic strokes, but really never progressed beyond that. So we stopped, and just took them to the beach and the pool a lot, and watched them. When they got old enough for summer scout day camp, they hated being in the lowest swimming group, so they finally got serious about it so they could pass the swimmer test and go out into the deep water. But pushing them into a slog of swimming lessons at the Y that they hated wasn't going to make them better swimmers.

    My mom put it best: She got to 65 without ever learning to put her face in the water. The kids weren't going to expire if they weren't proficient swimmers by age 5.

    Posted by BMS May 19, 12 11:27 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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