Find the sport perfect for your tot
Getting active is important for all children, for fun and health, and it's never too soon to get started. We know there are benefits of sport for little ones, but how do you figure out the right sport for your tot? Pip Jones helps you work it out
Swimming from newborn
There are so many benefits to be gained – for both of you – from taking babies swimming, but let's start with when to take them: although there's a widely held belief that you should wait until your baby has completed their vaccinations, the NHS advises that this is an old-fashioned opinion, probably dating back to when polio was common, and is no longer valid.
Great! This means you can take your baby any time from birth if you want to. And there's no need to panic – a newborn swimming class won't start with you having to chuck them in and check whether that theory about babies holding their breath is true.
Paul Thompson is co-founder of Water Babies, which teaches swimming to thousands of babies each week. 'Our youngest client was two days old,' he says. 'Having spent the first nine months of their lives suspended in fluid in the womb, most babies love the liberating sensation of floating freely.
'Their natural reflexes do mean they instinctively hold their breath when submerged, but we actually teach babies to control their breathing, which negates the risk of water inhalation.' Swimming is an essential skill, and many Water Babies can swim impressive distances under water by 30 months.
But it also lets them revel in the lack of gravity and use muscles they won't be aware of on dry land. And don't forget, Paul says, 'You'll have lots of fun, too!'
Football from 18 months
Perhaps you come from one of those football worshipping families, perhaps you don't; but either way, the beautiful game has lots to offer little children. And it's not just for boys. There is no reason at all why girls shouldn't enjoy playing and increasingly they have great things to aspire to – Great Britain's women's Olympic team reached the quarter finals of the 2012 Games.
Daniel Brownlie is the director of coaching at Little Kickers, an organisation that was actually set up by two women, and he's seeing more and more girls attending sessions held around the UK for children aged 18 months up. 'It's a pressure-free environment,' he says, 'where children can learn basic football skills hidden within fun activities.'
Physically, this helps them develop balance and co-ordination, but the children also learn social skills such as co-operation and sharing. What's more, all coaching sessions follow the Early Years programme, and help children to develop colour recognition, counting and simple problem-solving abilities, as well as building on their basic attention and listening skills – it's a process that Little Kickers calls 'learning to learn'.
'We show children how to strike stationary and moving footballs, and parents can share those first, unforgettable goals,' Daniel adds. 'Then gradually children are encouraged to move from parent-supported participation to active, independent play.'
Gymnastics from six months
There are hundreds of gym clubs around the country for older children, but even young babies can start enjoying the foundations of gymnastics at a baby/toddler class.
Tumble Tots, for example, was created by former British Olympics gymnastics coach Bill Cosgrave, and the company's Gymbabes sessions help babies from just six months old to develop their physical skills.
With their parents alongside them, at Gymbabes little ones can explore freely, and once they're toddling specific equipment helps them master certain moves. When they're walking they can move on to Tumble Tots proper, which has activity stations concentrating on things such as climbing, balance, agility and co-ordination. Technical director of Tumble Tots Samantha Rooke explains, 'We have frames to climb over and different types of beams, ladders, planks and slides for them to explore.'
The children can benefit from the most simple movements. For example, 'Side rolling promotes co-ordination because the upper and lower body moves together, and it develops a child's core strength too. 'For a forward roll, they lie on their tummy over a barrel and we rock them forwards and back. When they're ready, they can reach their hands down towards the ground, the parent tucks their head under, and gravity helps to bring their body and legs over.'
As well as rolling and balancing, children are taught how to jump and land safely, on two feet with bent knees.
Tennis from two years
Did you know that Andy Murray started playing tennis when he was just three? He may have been dedicated, but believe it or not, children can start even younger and there are several organisations around the UK that run sessions for toddlers.
But how on earth does teaching tennis to such small children work? 'We have games, music, lots of running around and high fives – and we move on to the next exercise as soon as interest levels drop – which is fairly often!' explains Matt Ward, a Lawn Tennis Association senior club coach for Tennis Tots. They offers classes to children aged two and up around the north of England.
'We ask one child to demonstrate a task or skill and then all the parents help their children to work on that move while I move around to individually coach each one.' Tennis Tots uses mini racquets and nets, foam balls, hitting tees and 'sticky feet' to help children position themselves.
Children gain a lot in terms of agility, not that they notice any of this because they're having such a giggle. 'As well as physical skills, children build on their attention span, learn how to follow instruction, work on a task, share and take turns. They are praised often, and their confidence grows as a result.'
Rugby from 18 months
There are many good reasons for going to tots' rugby classes, but perhaps the best is the enjoyment you'll get from watching small children trying to figure out why a rugby ball won't roll properly!
This is another sport where women have been making great advances and according to Rugbytots, which holds sessions around the UK, about 35 per cent of children who attend are girls.
Paul Murray coaches for Rugbytots in the south-east of England, and he sees how much toddlers get from it. 'Children come to us from the age of two (although other groups will take them from around 18 months) and the activities help them make huge strides physically and socially. We gently encourage rugby-specific skills, such as running with the ball, finding space, kicking, catching, scoring a try and much more – but our main aim is for
them to have as much fun as possible.'
Children can attend Rugbytots until the age of seven, and are split into three age groups. The toddlers start gently, playing with foam balls in 30-minute sessions. They progress to soft leather balls at the age of three and a half. 'Boys and girls play together,' Paul adds, 'and we always encourage the parents to join in too!'
Climbing from 2 years
Most toddlers love to climb and seem oblivious to the dangers of scaling tall furniture. So a climbing centre could be just the place to hone those skills safely! Many centres have facilities for the youngest children, including Durham Climbing Centre which offers parent and toddler sessions for two-year-olds.
'At this age parents can introduce their little ones to our dedicated children's wall,' says managing director Hayley McKenna. 'But from the age of three, youngsters can attend our Baby Rock Stars class with qualified instructors.'
During these classes children are taught bouldering, a type of rock climbing that doesn't go very high! 'We teach basic climbing skills, including warming up, traversing, swapping feet, understanding terminology – all done with demonstrations and games,' she explains.
The benefits for children are vast. 'It increases physical fitness, flexibility and agility but also builds on social skills, improves hand-to-eye co-ordination, gives an awareness of balance, and promotes listening and speaking skills. And it also expels a lot of excess energy.' Amen to that!