For six weeks this fall, my husband and I wrangled our just-turned-3-year-old to “soccer class” in the local park each Saturday morning.
When we signed up, I thought we had appropriately low expectations. We wanted a structured reason to get our girl outdoors and active on a morning when errands often intrude. We pictured her kicking and throwing a pint-size ball, meeting some neighborhood kids, and running around enough that she would be tuckered out by naptime.
But we encountered resistance from the get-go. Our daughter has loved splashing in swim lessons and often pretends she is going to dance class, yoga, or gymnastics. But soccer? With actual coaches asking her to do things? When we arrived at the park, she didn’t want to get out of her stroller, not even to do warm-up stretches that she could see were just like yoga.
Each Saturday that I was the soccer parent, I found myself coaxing my daughter into participating on the sidelines of the actual class. And I wasn’t the only one. A lot of moms and dads were playing one-on-one with their 2-and 3-year-olds, while the teachers worked with the kids who were more ready (many of them probably closer to 4). The children’s reactions ranged from enthusiasm to obliviousness to outright defiance. When kids were handed colored pinnies, the mesh shirts that would identify their teams, some loved them, but others—my girl included—refused to let them over their heads. If the coaches had offered her one in sparkly purple, perhaps she would have been won over, but plain red didn’t do it.
Maybe the resistance is related to her current “fairy princess ballerina” phase, which I name after her self-described Halloween costume this year. (It included a velvet dress, pink purse, and wand.) But I think it’s more about her age and her idea of play. She enjoys cranking up the music in our kitchen and calling our goofy moves ballet more than sitting still and listening to a stranger explain cleats or goalkeeping. Playing ball works better when it’s with people she already knows and the skill-building is unconscious. Dance does too: When a friend studying salsa tried to teach a simple step to my daughter last week, she responded, “I want to do my own moves.”
Still, the class wasn’t a total loss. My daughter and I kicked and dribbled and chased. One morning, I got her to participate in bits and pieces by declaring that each of us could choose what to do for five minutes at a time: five minutes on the swing, followed by five minutes with a soccer ball, then five minutes of pretending to visit the library or cook breakfast, and five minutes of running.
Now when we go to the park, we spend more time running and chasing each other on the green field instead of just sticking to the slides and swings. I think we would have made the switch anyway, but I’m willing to credit those Saturday morning soccer sessions with helping to broaden our outdoor play.
Who knows, maybe my daughter will be interested in trying soccer again when she’s a little older. But I’m in no rush to push organized sports. They may help teach teamwork or discipline or other skills. But our experiment this fall reminded me that my daughter—like all kids—also needs unstructured time to explore and create, free from adult rules.
So we still keep heading outside, but I’m letting her take the lead in inventing games. The other day, we had a grand time playing in a pile of leaves. And last week, she tried to climb a tree, sparkly dress and all.
Photo by iStock.
Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.