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Sport for children

sport; play; competition; exercise; rules; parents; safety ;

Sporting skills and enjoyment learned in childhood build foundations for enjoyment of sport throughout life. Sport is a way of making exercise an enjoyable and social event.


Sport is a very important part of the Australian way of life, as well as in many other countries. It is also one of the main ways to help children, young people and adults to keep fit and healthy. Many people do not get much exercise at work, and relax at home with television, so playing some sport can make a big difference to their health.

More information

As well as the content of this topic you may be interested in topics on the Raising Children Network http://raisingchildren.net.au/  Raising Children website is produced with the help of an extensive network including the Australian Government.

Importance of sport

Playing sport can:

  • improve physical fitness
  • improve confidence through learning skills and success
  • help children to learn to control their impulses - this is necessary for success in sport as well as social relationships
  • help build friendships
  • start lifetime interests
  • help children learn about rules and fair play
  • help children to cope with winning and losing
  • help children do better at school work.

Increasing overweight and obesity is happening world wide. People who are overweight or obese are more likely to have health problems. Helping young children to develop good eating patterns and enjoyment from sport and exercise may help them avoid later health problems.

Children and young people who play and enjoy sport are less likely to join in anti-social activities.

If children have a disability or ongoing medical problem there are many sports they can play. Discuss this with your child's doctor and then find out what is available in your area.

Starting sport

The National Junior Sport Policy recommends that children should generally not play organised competitive sport until 8-10 years.

If children are started in competitive sport before they are emotionally or physically ready they are likely to experience disappointment and stress and may give up playing altogether.

Young children

  • Children under 8 need to have the freedom to play, explore and learn the skills of throwing and catching, kicking and hitting a ball, jumping, running and swimming in an enjoyable way.
  • It is having these skills that enables them to confidently move on to the next step.
  • Parents can play an important role in playing games with children that help them to learn these skills in an enjoyable way without pressure. For example kicking a ball to each other in the backyard or park, throwing a ball through a hoop, or playing bat and ball games where everyone has a turn and the scores are not counted.
  • Children need lots of practice at doing well before they can learn to lose. Have a look at the topic 'Winning, losing and cheating'.

8-10 year olds

  • Depending on their individual development 8-10 year olds can join in organised competition (eg inter-school competition) that is adapted to meet the children's developing needs.
  • They will still need help with skill development and with coping with disappointment. Have a look at the topic 'Winning, losing and cheating' 
  • Children who lose too often are most likely to give up, so making sure that each child has some successes is important.
  • This is a time when children can try lots of different sports to see what they enjoy most.

11-12 years and over

  • Children and young people can enjoy the competition and still be learning skills.
  • Some children at this age are showing special talent at, and interest in, a particular sport and can benefit from individual coaching.
  • Children and young people need to learn about how to behave when playing, and when winning and losing.
  • Sport at this stage can involve trips away with a team and opportunities for team leadership.
  • It is important not to push any young people beyond what they are physically ready for and to find out about what is appropriate in relation to their age and the sport they are playing.
  • For young people who want to drop out of competitive team sport, activities such as bush walking, orienteering, gymnastics (or exercise classes at the local gym), or roller-skating may take their place. See the topic 'Physical activity for children'.

Note: the suggestions above are general and the interests and abilities of each individual child should be taken into account when helping them choose what sports to play and at what level.

Mixed sex sport

  • Younger children learning the skills of sport usually enjoy games and don't worry whether they are playing with boys or girls or both.
  • Primary school age girls are usually physically capable of playing successfully in mixed sex teams, although they may not want to. Those who do want to can generally "hold their own" with boys.
  • In adolescence, girls may be disadvantaged by the physical strength and size of boys although in some "fun" competitions (such as netball and touch football) boys and girls and men and women still enjoy mixed sport.

Sport safety

  • To enjoy playing sport children need to be prepared and to follow some safety rules. Sporting injuries to children often happen because of not following safety rules.
  • Many sports have particular suggested safety equipment, eg helmet, shin guards, mouth guards. Find out from the coach what your child needs for her sport and make sure she has well fitted equipment.
  • Children's playing areas should be safe from hazards.
  • Before and after playing warm-ups and warm-downs help to prevent soreness and muscle pain. See the topic 'Physical activity for children'.
  • Young children should not do exercises that put a strain on their developing bones, joints and muscles.
    • It is best to do a variety of exercises, not over emphasise one, and not to go on for too long.
    • Training with weights is not appropriate before adolescence and should always be done with trained supervision.
  • It is best for children to be playing against others of similar size and age.
  • Children's bodies can get too hot or too cold more quickly than adults'. They should not:
    • play sport for sessions that last longer than half an hour
    • play sport in very hot weather (over about 30º Centigrade)
    • stay in very cold water for long periods of time when swimming - and they should wear warm clothing between events if the weather is cold.
  • Children do not always know when they need to drink, and often need to drink before they feel thirsty. Make sure they drink water before, during and after playing.
  • In hot weather children need sunscreen, protective clothing and hats.
  • It is also important to protect children from emotional injuries such as:
    • being forced to do something they don't want to or are afraid to
    • being blamed, labelled or criticised for not doing well
    • being yelled at or abused by anyone - spectators, coach or players.
  • If children are injured during play it is important to get correct treatment to protect growing young bodies. See 'Cuts, grazes and bruises' for First Aid and seek medical advice.

The Australian Sports Commission recommends that young children participate in modified sport so as to avoid the risk of injury and also to ensure that appropriate skills are developed using equipment that is suitable for young people. There are over 40 sports that have been modified to meet the needs of younger children. Your child's school will have information about modified sports.

What parents can do

Much sport for children and young people would not exist without support from parents as coaches, drivers, umpires, fundraisers and cheerleaders so parents play a very important role.

For their own children parents can encourage their enjoyment of and participation in sport in lots of ways.

Parents can:

  • play and enjoy sports themselves so children are more likely to want to copy them and join in
  • play with children and teach them the skills
  • set challenges that children can succeed at and develop confidence, eg set the target for a throwing game just within the child's skill level
  • support children to take part in sports without making them do so or pressuring them to do what they don't enjoy
  • go with children to their sport and stay to watch them
  • encourage children and help them to focus on improving their own skills and doing the best they can do
  • give children encouragement for what they do well
  • show children how to be a "good sport" by how they themselves react to winning and losing, eg clap whenever there is good play, not just when it is your child or team that has succeeded
  • help children to learn the rules of the game and explain why rules are important
  • never criticise or blame children for mistakes. Help them see that everyone makes mistakes, and mistakes are to learn from.
  • Explain to your child that winning does not simply mean coming first or being the best. Achieving a personal best or performing a skill for the first time is just as important as winning and should be praised and encouraged as such.
  • You can become a coach - qualified junior sport deliverer by completing a Sport Education General Principles training course. Details are available from the Coaching section of the Australian Sports Commission web site http://www.ausport.gov.au/participating/coaches  or from your local sporting club.

Some parents can get very emotionally involved with their children's sport and very upset if things do not seem to be going well.

  • It is important that parents show courtesy and consideration at sporting events and do not argue with or abuse the umpires or other players. This stresses their own children as well as making it uncomfortable for everyone else.
  • If you believe that you cannot manage your own feelings at sporting events it is better to let someone else take your child.

Resources and further reading


Australian Sports Commission 

World Health Organisation - Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/en/

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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