Finding activities for kids who aren’t into team sports

Helping kids build healthy exercise habits early in life is important for both mental and physical health. But if your child isn’t into organized team sports, there are still plenty of ways to help them stay active.

First, try to figure out what it is about team sports that your child doesn’t like, suggests exercise physiologist Pete McCall, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists. If your child is comfortable having the discussion, you could ask directly; otherwise, you may have to pick up on clues on your own.

Maybe your child is still developing the skills they need to kick a ball or follow directions, and that’s why they seem to tune out on the soccer field. Or maybe they’re not into competition, but would love to run outdoors solo. Once you determine what they do and don’t like, look for activities that do suit your child. Just as with adults, when kids actually enjoy a physical activity, they’re more likely to stick with it.

How can you determine which activities might work for your child? These 4 questions may help narrow down the playing field.

1. Do they prefer to play with others or on their own?

How does your child usually play: in big groups, one-on-one with a friend or alone?

Why is that important? Because how kids play is a window to their temperaments. And temperament (or personality) — along with athletic abilities and even genetics — can contribute to how motivated kids are about certain types of physical activity.1

So, be sure to take their personality into account when searching for ways to help them get active. Some kids do love the friendships that come with team sports such as soccer and basketball, but that simply may not be your child’s preference, which is okay. Your child may be more into one-on-one competitions such as karate or tennis or maybe would prefer to simply skateboard or bike ride on their own.

Every child is different and there’s no right way to get physical activity. What’s important is that they find something they love — and get active every day.

2. Do they prefer playing inside or outside?

If your child doesn’t like bugs or spending time in the heat or cold weather, for example, chances are they aren’t going to enjoy any kind of outdoor physical activity —whether it’s team sports or one-on-one games. On the other hand, if your kid loves to spend all their free time outside, they may be less interested in getting active indoors.

Talk to your child about what they like. Then suggest activities that capitalize on their indoor or outdoor preferences. The important thing is to be flexible and open to suggesting different options. For example, if your child doesn’t want to play tennis or try running outdoors because they prefer to be inside, you may want to offer them an opportunity to try gymnastics or a kids yoga class instead.

3. What are they good at?

Some kids may be reluctant to play a team sport because they don’t think they’ll be good at it — and don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their peers. If you think that might be the case, ask your child privately if they like the sport. If so, would they want to practice it apart from an organized team?2 Once they feel more comfortable with the skills of the sport, they may want to play in a group setting. And that doesn’t need to be an organized competitive team. Many community centers and local recreation centers offer spaces and less competitive opportunities to play with others.

As your child practices, be sure to offer lots of positive reinforcement, suggests Teresa L. Lovins, M.D., a board member for the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Let them know you’re proud of them for trying, even if it’s hard for them,” she says.

Also consider playing to your child’s existing strengths. Maybe your child is very flexible. If so, taking gymnastics at a local studio or community center might interest them. Or if your child is super coordinated, playing frisbee with friends can also be a fun way to exercise. Keep in mind that activities don’t have to be organized with large groups to be fun for kids. As long as they’re happy doing it and they feel like they’re doing well at it, they’ll want to keep doing it.

4. What are they interested in?

Focus on the things your child finds engaging and work to connect movement to that, McCall suggests.

If it’s nature or animals, you could try hiking with them. Or if your child expresses an interest in swimming, a local community pool may offer open swims for them to splash around. Perhaps your child loves moving to music. If so, you may consider hosting a dance party with their friends one night. No matter what your child’s interest, there are options to get them moving. It may just take some time to figure out what works best for them.

It’s also important to really listen to what your child is telling you — without inserting your own opinions or what you liked or did as a child. That way, they’ll feel comfortable expressing their unique interests and how or where they want to get active.

Remember the goal isn’t to get your kid to love — or join — a team sport. The goal is to help them discover ways to move and be active that are enjoyable for them. That’s a gift that will keep on giving for years to come.

This article is part of UnitedHealthcare’s 6-Day Family Fitness Challenge. Being active — at every age and stage — is key to overall health. And getting the whole family involved makes it more fun and sets good habits early on. We’re helping families get moving, and we encourage every member of the household to join.

Ready to check out the rest of the Family Fitness Challenge? Read more:

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