First of all, don't panic if you fall into the latter. While organized sports are starting at younger and younger ages, that doesn't mean your child has missed out on anything that he/she can't pick up on in a couple of games. Most young players in soccer, for example, run up and down the field after the bunch without really realizing what the goal of the game is (and that is why my husband and I call it bunch ball).
WHAT AGE TO START?
There is no magic number to give you here. There is no one right age for every child and every family situation. Even in our own family, we have varied a lot.
Brayden didn't do an activity until he was 4.5, and his first "activity" was preschool. He was close to 5 when he first played a sport (soccer) and was 5 when he took his first swimming lesson. So when I tell you not to panic, I tell you from a place of knowing what it is like to have an "older" child who hasn't done activities.
This made sense for Brayden and our family and I don't regret it at all. Let me give you a little insight into why this happened. Reason number one is our number two child came along when Brayden was 22 months old. You know how much I value staying true to sleep for my babies, so it never crossed my mind to put him into things as a two year old. I had a newborn who needed a consistent schedule at home.
Reason number two is that our number three child came along a couple of months before Bradyen turned four. Once again, back to the newborn life. Activities were the furthest thing from my mind. Since he was my oldest, we weren't in a habit of doing outside activities and I just didn't think about it much.
Reason number three is one I can only know looking back in retrospect. I didn't realize at the time, but Brayden is an introvert who needs his time at home. If I had put him in a bunch of activities as a toddler and preschooler, it literally would have stressed him out. We did simple activities like play at the park with friends and go on hikes and camping trips as a family. That simple life worked for him and it worked for our family situation.
Consideration number one should be "How would the activity affect my child?" Would it be good for my child? I am not against having children do things they don't want to do (I mean, how many times have I forced my children to go potty--even in the last 24 hours!!!), but be wise in the age and circumstance you require certain things.
Consideration number two should be "How would the activity affect the family as a whole?" Would the sacrifices required by the family make sense--in other words, do the benefits for the one child outweigh the cons for the rest of the family?
Let me finish the early Brayden life narrative with some encouragement for any of you thinking starting later is a good idea. Brayden started preschool "late." He has never been behind in school because of it. He has been determined to be gifted and he does extremely well in school. On the athletic side of life, Brayden is on a competitive swim team despite only swimming for the last five years. I don't know where swimming will take him, but my point is that starting at age five hasn't ruined him. He also enjoys playing a variety of other sports year round.
Now, starting activities at an older age worked great for Brayden. So is that what we did as a whole for every other child?
That would be ignoring my first two considerations.
Kaitlyn is about the exact opposite of Brayden when it comes to liking to be busy and liking to be surrounded by people (for birthday parties, I have to limit Kaitlyn to inviting 15 friends and Brayden never has an interest in inviting more than 5 even though I tell him he can invite more).
Kaitlyn's first activity was at age three. She was in a dance class. She didn't start preschool until 4.5 and she has also been labeled as gifted (my actual policy on preschool is to not start until the final year before Kindergarten, so this age range has been true for all my children).
Kaitlyn was 3 when she took her first swimming lesson. Why so much younger? Because, if you check the math, when Kaitlyn was 3, Brayden was 5. When Brayden was 5, he was taking swimming lessons. So Kaitlyn was taking swimming lessons also. We were there anyway and there is a 3 year old class. McKenna was 1 at the time, but no one year old class :).
McKenna and Brinley also both started dance at age three. But both started swimming lessons before they turned 3. Again, this was a practical matter. We have since moved to having a private swim teacher. We pay her by the hour. She will fit all four of our kids into that hour or do just two if needed (Brayden and Kaitlyn are both graduated from official lessons--not to say things can't still be improved upon!). So, the whole family is there anyway and we are paying for it anyway, so might as well get it started.
That leads me to the third consideration. "Does the money I will spend have value?" Does it make sense to spend the money you will spend on the activity? Will your child benefit in some way--be it physically, mentally, or socially? Could those benefits be achieved for free at home? Or at least for cheaper? If it doesn't make sense, save the money. Put it in a savings account if it is burning a hole in your pocket. You can use that money toward activities later or toward a college education.
A fourth consideration I have hinted around is "What age makes sense for the individual activity?" You shouldn't apply a blanket age to start for all activities. All activities aren't created equal and are not appropriate at equal ages. Now, you might have an age you start things based on the other three considerations and that is great. Here are some thoughts I have on various activities:
- Swimming: I like around age 3 for swimming. All children go through a phase of being scared when doing swimming lessons, and it is easier to get a 3 year old to do things than a 5 year old. If you have a baby at home with a three year old and it would make life stressful, I would feel fine with start at 4, also. With that said, while starting at 5 was harder for Brayden than it was for my girls to start around 3, it hasn't hurt him in the long run. It has taken him longer to get through the lessons than they have, though. If you want to start later, I would recommend you go swimming with your little one often enough that he/she feels somewhat comfortable in the water. See How Parents Can Help with Swimming Lessons for more.
- Preschool: Like I said, I like the year before Kindergarten. My short answer reasons for this are that I like to keep my child home with me longer, I can and do preschool at home with my child before then, and it isn't free so that is $100 a month that can stay in the family budget longer. You can find my long answer to considerations for preschool here:
- Dance: I have liked age 3 for dance class. My girls have all been eager to go to dance and socialize, though. I wouldn't force it on a 3 year old. If your little girl is like Brayden and likes to be home, do not feel like you have to start dance at age 2 or 3 to be successful at it. Remember consideration number one--how will it affect the child. Dance class for the 3 year old is just for fun.
- Sports: We start sports when they are first offered around here, but I know most of our sports are offered at an older age than much of the country. Soccer is the season they turn 5. Basketball is first graders. We tried t-ball once and didn't love it, so we go for 5-6 for softball/baseball. Brayden is trying flag football for the first time now as a 10 year old, but I would be comfortable with flag football as a 5-6 year old.
- Music: The answer here would depend on what kind of music class. Studies have found that music classes are beneficial from a very young age. Spoiler alert--babies. My question would be can a music class you are paying for bring more into your baby's life than you can give at home? Maybe only if you have zero musical knowledge. I would guess it is just exposure to music, but I haven't done a baby music class so I don't know. We start piano lessons in Kindergarten. We have half-day Kindergarten here and thus far my children have all been overly ready for Kindergarten. I wanted to have something challenging in their lives at that time. A lot of people say to wait on piano lessons until closer to age 8, but I have loved piano starting at age 5 and I plan to do the same with Brinley. Here is an article on benefits of music lessons from Parents.com.
A final consideration that must be made is "How does the activity mesh with the other activities currently going on?" This will likely be part of the thought process when considering how it affects the individual and the family, but in case it doesn't come up, I want to make sure it is there. If your child is already in dance class and you add a soccer season in there, how will the two activities work together? Will you have to choose between the two at times? How will you add in a practice and a couple of games a week? What impact will that have on the family and the child? How will you juggle the conflicts?
I have a few posts that can help you manage things once you get going: