Structured fitness such as sports or games with clear-cut rules are a staple at many early childhood centers. But how does it differ from unstructured play, when children are allowed to choose their activities freely?

The Importance of Overall Physical Activity

Education goes beyond academics. Incorporating structured and unstructured physical activity into early childhood education is essential to:

  • Developing a healthy lifestyle
  • Decreasing stress and anxiety
  • Improving social, cognitive, and emotional abilities
  • Increasing learning and concentration


However, structured fitness has a few benefits that free play doesn’t provide.

Learning, Applying, & Playing by the Rules

Children are constantly given rules to follow: no running inside, use your words, eat your vegetables. Usually, these rules are enforced few and far between as they make social mistakes. Sports, on the other hand, give children a longer list of rules to remember over a short period of time. As a result, structured fitness teaches children concentration, discipline, and determination.

Coping with Winning & Losing

Healthy competition is a great motivator throughout a person’s life. However, if a child doesn’t learn how to deal with winning and losing at an early age, it can make life’s obstacles much more difficult to overcome. Sports teach children that losing and wining are temporary. Failure is a opportunity to improve. Winning is an accomplishment, but does not mean you have complete superiority over your opponent.

Sports as a Social Tool

Structured fitness builds a sense of community, regardless of age. Teams may be made up of other children with different:

  • Ethnicities
  • Cultures
  • Religions
  • Socio-economic classes
  • Genders

Since people from vastly different backgrounds play the same sport, it teaches tolerance through finding a common ground.

Good vs. Evil: Expanding a Child’s Sense of Morality

While your team must work together, the opposing team is not “bad.” Many children have a storybook morality of good vs. evil. Sports teaches children that just because someone is your opponent—whether because they’re on the opposite team or because they disagree with you—does not mean that they are bad people. In fact, your best friend may be on the other team. As a result, structured fitness improves a child’s ability to deal with conflict.

How Young is Too Young?

Obviously, early childhood centers have children whose motor skills are not developed enough to play an organized sport. While age is not a hard-and-fast indicator of when your child should start participating in structured fitness (see our article on Ages vs. Stages), a general guideline is around 2-3 years old. That said, traditional sports should be simplified to accommodate a child’s physical and mental abilities.

Learn About Sports Opportunities at NAMCC

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