It was the most intimidating audience I’d ever faced in my life. Their eyes glared at me, daring me to challenge their strongly held beliefs in mere seconds, or else they would band together and revolt for the next two weeks.
I hoped they didn’t catch me shaking in my sneakers.
Thus began my stint teaching sports skills to 8–11-year-olds at a youth orchestra camp over a decade ago. My mission was to introduce them to a variety of sports, give them exercise skills to use for life, and convince them sports had a place in their lives — no matter how much they preferred to be making music.
Exercise and sports skills are important for everyone, even if you and your child don’t ever want to wear a jersey or join a gym. My goals for my orchestra campers were the same I have for my toddler son now: Find fun in movement and don’t let exercise be a foreign concept.
Here are three tips that helped me toward those goals both at that camp years ago — and now, as a mom:
1) Work movement into every day
Introducing movement to your child doesn’t require a set block of time. Find ways to run, skip, jump, and dance from room to room. Touch your toes while picking up toys. With my 13-month-old, I’ll introduce a move after a diaper change. Before we go about doing our next activity, we make a pencil point with our arms, we jump twice, or we do a toe-touch.
2) Introduce your child to sports gear without rules
Let your child play with a soccer ball, a kickball, or a football without immediately telling them what the rules are. (As long as they are doing so safely, of course.) What is their inclination toward that item? My 13-month-old son wants to throw his soft soccer ball, and I am not going to insist that he only kick it at this point. He won’t understand that limitation right now, and he may end up associating that soccer ball with frustration and confusion.
You can do this with any age. My orchestra campers loved using lacrosse sticks with a tennis ball on a tennis court. They enjoyed “hacking” gear, and it got them interested in learning more about both tennis and lacrosse.
3) Modify games for safety and sanity
I love lacrosse, and I wanted to introduce my orchestra campers to the game. But without proper padding and safety equipment, the game could be dangerous. So when we got to our lacrosse unit, I taught with lacrosse sticks and ping pong balls. It allowed me to teach some fundamentals with much less risk. Purists might scoff, but the last thing I needed was a kid getting seriously injured by a hard lacrosse ball. I made a modification that kept everyone safe and happy.
You may also need to modify a game for either your sanity or family harmony. As a child, my summers were spent playing wiffle ball in the backyard with my mom. Mom’s wiffle ball had one unique rule: Three balls equaled a strike. As an 8-year-old, I was convinced that was an actual rule. But it turned out it was just a modification my mom made to keep games moving and equal the playing field a bit between my younger sister and I. The modification worked — my sister and I loved playing.
Do what works for you and your children. Your aim isn’t to create an Olympian. Your aim is to make movement fun and give your children ideas to use for lifelong exercise.