Encouraging kids to get moving is a no-brainer. But pushing them too hard, too soon can lead to injuries and burnout. Here's how to find the happy medium for your little athlete.
5 and under
Do this: Introduce them to team sports like basketball and soccer — but don't expect all-star performances. "Most 5-year olds aren't coordinated enough to hit a pitched ball and don't have true ball handling skills," says Dr. Teri McCambridge, of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Avoid: Lifting weights is a no-no for kids this young — and for all kids who haven't reached puberty. But yoga, cycling and even running are OK with parental supervision.
More info: New AAP guidelines say swimming lessons can lower the risk of drowning for kids under 4. Swim instructors can teach kids as young as six months to venture under water.
Do this: Around age 6, children make huge athletic leaps. "They develop balance and proprioceptive skills," McCambridge says. Many 6-year-olds can hit a tennis ball or softball, pass a soccer ball or basketball and do complicated gymnastics routines.
Avoid: Your little one may seem to have the endurance of the Energizer Bunny, but she shouldn't take on a running event without some prep. Invest in supportive shoes and encourage her to run at least three times a week, gradually building up to the event distance.
More info: Kids this age may not recognize when they're thirsty. Encourage them to sip water every 10 to 20 minutes during activity.
Do this: Avoid overuse injuries (common ones include "Little League elbow" and heel pain in soccer players), by aiming for no more than two seasons of a given sport per year, rather than playing year-round. "Every sport stresses growth plates differently," McCambridge says, "which helps ensure healthy all-over development."
Avoid: Don't put pressure on your kids to choose their favorite sport — just remind them that tennis great Roger Federer and hoopster LeBron James didn't specialize until high school.
More info: Hand-eye coordination really kicks in at this age, so kids are usually able to hit and accurately throw a baseball/softball and confidently ride a bike.
Do this: During this rapid-growth period, make sure your kid's training is developmentally appropriate. Keep prepubescent kids out of the weight room, despite what Coach says. In contact sports, your children should play against kids of similar size (keep them on the JV team or in rec sports until they catch up).
Avoid: Baseball and softball players shouldn't be throwing breaking balls like knuckle and curve balls at this age — talk to your child's coach to make sure he/she knows the risks.
More info: Using stretchy bands and doing body-weight exercises such as push-ups can substitute for traditional weight training without the risk of injury.
15 and older
Do this: Post-puberty, your child's body can handle ramped-up competition and training, even for endurance events like marathons and triathlons. "Just keep an eye on nutrition, since teens need extra calories, and recognize the signs of heat-related illness," says Dr. Joel Brenner, medical director of the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, Va., and author of a recent AAP report on sports-related injuries among adolescents.
Avoid: "Don't just throw them into a weight room and let them go," Brenner says. To help your teen learn proper form and avoid injury, arrange a few sessions with a strength-training coach or personal trainer.
More info: The American Heart Association recommends physical exams for kids in ninth through 12th grade before playing any sport. If your family has a history of heart problems, or if your child has ever fainted during exercise, ask your pediatrician about an electrocardiogram, Dr. McCambridge suggests.