How Ball Sports Can Help Outdoor Kids Get Fit

Maybe you're raising a family of kayakers and runners, but you should still teach your children to play tennis and mini-golf. Here's why.


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For the past few weeks, my five-year-old daughter, Pippa, has been taking tennis lessons at the yacht club across the lake. It’s not as hoity-toity as it sounds: There are a couple of courts staffed by a handful of teenage boys, and a few wooden benches in the shade along the side. That’s where the parents hover, scrutinizing their kids’ shots and silently checking to see how well they measure up against their peers. I know, because that’s what I’ve done for the past two summers.

At three, I put her on the court as a lark. Lessons were held after lunch, and the Ontario sun beat down on the court while she got red faced, occasionally cried, and never hit the ball. She was the youngest one out there, and I don’t write that with pride. She was learning tennis because I wanted her to, not because she had the attention span or the stamina to play the game. Most likely, she’d have been better off at home, having a nap.

Last summer, newly four, she was easily the worst player on the court, though she was no longer the littlest. She’d swing wildly and miss completely. She’d swing late or wouldn’t swing at all. She had no hand-eye coordination whatsoever.

As outdoor athletes, my husband and I take our two daughters skiing, hiking, and biking. But as a family, we almost never hang around the backyard or the park playing ball sports. We’ve taught our girls to love the trails, ski at 18 months, and ride pedal bikes at three, but not how to catch or throw. Turns out we’ve overlooked a major piece of their physical literacy.

Physical literacy, coined by British educator Margaret Whitehead in 2001, is a sophisticated term for a surprisingly simple concept: Kids need to be taught essential movement skills—running, jumping, throwing, catching, balancing—to become successful, not just in sports but in all of life. According to the Canadian nonprofit Active for Life empowering children to move with competence and confidence in a range of activities and environments translates to better performance in sports and school, increased self confidence, and better health.

At the first annual International Physical Literacy Conference, held in Banff last spring, the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré lamented what he called the “professionalization of youth sports.” Just as we’re pushing children to read and write earlier, we’re also in a rush to skip fundamental steps in their physical development in order to get them into competitive team sports earlier. But before they can become star athletes, he argued, they need to learn how to play.

How? By getting back to basics. Go outside with your kids and play with them the way you played when you were young: wheelbarrow races, logrolling down hills, four square, hopscotch. During summers when I was young, my sisters, friends, cousins and I would spend hours playing 7-Up with a tennis ball against the porch wall. We’d throw and catch it in the air, bounce it under one leg, then the other in an elaborate sequence that we’d repeat using only one hand, then the other, then standing on one leg, then with our eyes closed. We learned balance and bouncing, throwing and catching. If we dropped the ball, our turn was over. I have two daughters, three nieces, and five nephews, and I’ve never played 7-Up with any of them.

“It’s not enough to tell our children to go outside and play, like we did when we were young,” explains Active for Life CEO Richard Monette. “They’re learning from other kids the same way we did, only now they’re learning how to be good at video games. They’re learning to be inactive.”

Active for Life recommends 50 easy activities that you can do with your child at home, at the park, or anywhere outside. They’re simple, don’t require special equipment, and most important, feel like games, not work. This isn’t to say that putting toddlers on skis or hockey skates or teaching them to play tennis or ride a two-wheeler is detrimental to their development—only if it comes at the expense of basic physical skills.

This year, before we came to Canada, I was determined to avoid a repeat of last summer. I tossed Pippa tennis balls on our back patio in Santa Fe. I taught her to swing forehand and backhand, and showed her the ready position. I said all of the things my stepfather said to me when I was six and he was teaching me to play. She surprised me by hitting a few balls, spastically at first. Pretty soon, I had to duck.

She has tennis lessons three times a week this summer, and I was curious to see her play. At the first clinic, as far as I could tell, she didn’t make contact once. At the second, she threw a tantrum because we were late, so we bailed and came home. Before the third, I tried to hide the desperation in my voice when I asked one of the pros in passing, “What’s it going to take to get Pippa to hit the ball?”

“Let’s take a look,” he replied.

But I didn’t. As tempted as I was to stay and watch, I had to get back to the cottage and get my three-year-old down for a nap. When I picked Pippa up an hour later, she was sweaty and beaming and I hadn’t spent the hour worried about her ball skills. From then on, that became our routine. Her grandfather drops her off by boat and then leaves. I feel like it’s my parental duty and privilege to stand on the sit on the benches with my friends, but I know it’s better for both of us if I don’t.

Yesterday morning after breakfast, I asked Pippa if she wanted to hit a few balls. She grabbed her racquet and we went outside to the old cement block beside our cottage, practically the only flat surface on the whole island. My brother used to stand out here and swing his wooden baseball bat every night before dinner; sometimes he’d pitch balls to me. I bounced the ball to her and she smacked it. One after another, she let them fly, balls ricocheting off the tool shed roof, hitting the cottage, and disappearing into the grass. She didn’t hit every one, of course, but she was grinning madly, and I realized how much I missed this—the old easy way of playing as kids—and how much she had, too. Someday soon, we’ll be able to play tennis together. But I’m not in any rush.

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