Gone are the days when physical training for kids under 12 years old was thought to cause growth stunts. We now know that early life physical activity is the prime time to develop the basic human movement patterns of squatting, pushing, pulling, lunging, crawling, rolling, hinging and rotating. As these patterns form the base for a well functioning and resilient homo-sapiens it’s hard to overstate their importance.
So it is well known that physical movement and exercise strengthen one’s physical health. But research also shows a connection between movement and brain function. Learning movement can have a major effect on children’s brain power and even academic ability. And it’s more than just better cognitive function. Movement also positively affects mood, social skills and self-esteem. And if nothing else, activities and play allow kids to blow off some steam. And according to most parents that is never a bad thing.
Beyond of just physical activity in form of movement and play structured strength training can help kids to improve their muscles, tendons and ligaments. This allows kids to become more resilient to sustain the forces required in their chosen sports, and life in general. Training can also assist in ingraining healthy habits kids then keep for the rest of their lives.
But, and this is a big one, if kids are already active outside of just playing sports, it’s debatable whether they need more supervised and structured training in their life. Often it’s enough to “just let kids be kids”. Provided that being a kid involves frequent physical activity beyond of only rigorously structured sport in a competition setting.
Unfortunately inactivity among kids is far too common today
The advancements and easy access of technology means kids are less involved in physical play. It’s not uncommon for kids to sit for hours only using their thumbs on a controller while staring at a screen.
And if there is physical activity involved it is often solely in the aforementioned sports and competition setting. Not in a fun and casual environment that encourages exploring and learning human movement.
In those cases we need to look for solutions. We need to get kids more active so they can develop their basic skills of moving like a human-being should.
Avoiding Early Specialization
By now it’s proven (but unfortunately often ignored) that kids shouldn’t specialize by focusing on a single sport at an early age. Research shows that early specialization doesn’t increase the odds of kids turning into elite athletes in their sport.
What’s worse research indicates that early specialization leads to more overuse injuries in kids. Same way as overuse injuries happen in adults who are exposed to repetitive movements activities, so too can these overuse injuries happen in kids. Early specialization and seriousness towards one sport can also lead to emotional burnout causing the kids to stop playing at an early age. Specializing also includes “kids specific” structured exercise classes that are modelled after adult gyms.
We need to be careful not to impose training driven with adult values on kids at a young age. Kids learn the best when we embrace the kid side of them. Meaning that the exercises and activities should be based around play and games with a lot of variety between “sessions”.
Still, even when playing 2-3 different sports the kids movement development is often dictated by those sports. Especially if there is very little unorganized play involved. In other words, and this bears repeating, sole focus on sports and not being a kid interferes in developing a healthy human.
In these cases the basic human movement patterns are not being developed properly which can cause a host of issue later in life. Kids need to become well moving humans first. Specialising into a certain sport or activity comes much later. Maybe around 13-15, depending on who you ask.
As a side note, Mike Boyle has a great tongue-in-cheek article here about developing a off-season plan for a 9 year old. And as is often the case with Mike Boyle, he’s right. https://strengthcoachblog.com/2011/06/16/summer-training-for-nine-year-olds-2/
Structured training and exercise for kids
When it comes to organized training for kids we need to provide a safe, non-competitive environment. An environment where kids can be kids without worrying about winning or losing, but just living carelessly as only kids can. We might call it training but really it’s movement education in a fun environment.
Kids don’t have the attention span to follow strict training guidelines. And by focusing on competition and strict rules at a young age we often remove the fun out of childhood. This rips the kids the freedom to improve their skills while still enjoying healthy and active childhood without the pressure to perform.
If a structure training is involved it’s good to focus on controlling one’s own bodyweight instead of adding external resistance. By basing the “training” around the basic movement patterns we can develop movement skills in a fun and playful environment. Squatting doesn’t have to mean the squat exercise, but an engaging movement such as frog jumps that develop the movement pattern of squatting.
What is a good age to start? Around 7-12 seems to right for most kids. That seems to be the ideal time for hard-wired strength gains and movement pattern education. Another guideline to use is the same age as they’d be ready for organized sports.
Frequent physical activity is an important aspect of kids development and wellbeing. Once they start just remember to have variety while keeping thing fun, playful and progressive. The kids should look forward to each session. Not as something that they are forced to do.