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Kids and Sports: Fundamentals First

Would you hand a child calculus problems once she was able to count to ten? A geometry text when he began to recognize shapes? War and Peace as soon as she could recite her ABCs? Of course not! Not only is it preposterous to have such expectations of a child, but also it sets up the child for failure - and, most likely, a dread of and distaste for calculus, geometry, and reading.

Yet all too many children are enrolled in gymnastics, karate, dance classes, and organized sports before they've mastered such basic movements as bending and stretching, walking with correct posture, and bouncing and catching a ball. How is that significantly different from expecting a child who's barely learned to speak to recite the Declaration of Independence - for an audience, no less?

The fact that a little one can walk doesn't necessarily mean he's ready to successfully - or fearlessly - walk a balance beam. Because a toddler is flexible enough to get her big toe into her mouth, that doesn't mean she's ready for ballet's pli?s and relev?s. Even if a five-year-old can run circles around you, it doesn't mean he's prepared to simultaneously run and dribble a ball in a fast-paced game of soccer. And how much sense does it make to enroll an eight-year-old in competitive softball while she's still demonstrating an improper throwing form?

The basic motor skills - nonlocomotor (stationary, like bending and stretching), locomotor (traveling, like walking or hopping), and manipulative (object control, like bouncing and catching a ball) - have been called the ABCs of movement. And, just as we wouldn't expect children to begin reading without the ability to identify letters of the alphabet, we shouldn't expect children to take part in certain structured physical activities without first experiencing success with the ABCs of movement.

Movements - from the simple to the complex - are like building blocks. You must have the foundation laid before you can construct the ground floor. You've got to have the ground floor completed before the rest of the building can be erected. Similarly, a logical progression of motor skills is essential if children are to achieve optimal motor development. If they skip the prerequisites, they may never progress successfully from one level of skill development to the next.

Moreover, bad habits acquired early in life are likely to persist throughout an entire lifetime. For example, the young pitcher who hasn't yet acquired a mature level of throwing isn't likely to lose his bad habits simply because he's required to pitch one or two games a week. Rather, the odds are these bad habits will simply become more and more ingrained as time goes on - a situation that could have ripple-effect consequences for years to come. He could, for instance, develop shoulder problems that prevent him not only from pitching in high school and beyond but also from taking part in recreational and fitness activities as an adult.

In the course of a lifetime, it is from the prenatal period through age five that children acquire and best learn the basic motor skills. The most sensible course of action, therefore, is to ensure children learn them correctly during this period. The least sensible strategy is for children to learn incorrectly or only to a certain, low level and expect them to correct their errors or improve their skill level merely because they age chronologically. Writing in the International Journal of Physical Education, motor development specialist and professor Carl Gabbard states: "In contemporary motor development literature, the period of early childhood is associated with the fundamental movement phase of motor behavior. This is a unique period in the lifespan due primarily to the emergence of fundamental movement abilities which establish the foundation upon which more complex movement skills are possible later in life."

In other words, fundamentals first. Children should walk before they run. They should bend and stretch before they twist and dodge. They should throw for distance before throwing for accuracy. Static movement (balancing on tiptoes or hitting a ball off a tee) should precede dynamic movement (walking a balance beam or hitting a pitched ball). And children should definitely succeed at single actions (like bouncing a ball) before attempting combinations of them (simultaneously running and bouncing a ball).

Still, a study conducted at Northern Kentucky University found that almost half (49%) of children ages five to eight lacked the minimum skills necessary to play organized sports. And yet there are millions of five-to-eight-year-old - not to mention three? and four-year-old - children who are playing (or trying to play) organized sports. There are millions of others participating in dance, gymnastics, karate, and more who similarly lack the requisite skills.

Of course, if a child is involved in sports, dance, gymnastics, and such, there's even more reason to ensure she's able to successfully perform the fundamentals. First, fundamentals are the prerequisites to sport-specific, dance, and gymnastic skills. If a child can't perform a skill required by her chosen activity, the chances are excellent she hasn't sufficiently learned a prerequisite skill. Second - and perhaps more important - children who are successful in physical activities continue in those physical activities and others.

Rae Pica is a children's physical activity specialist and the author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Rae speaks to parent and education groups throughout North America. You can visit her at http://www.movingandlearning.com.

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