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Beverly Goldsmith Beverly Goldsmith
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“Hey mum! Look!”:

When is a child ready to participate in physical activity independently?
By Krystal Nicholson
Date: June 06 2013
Tags: kids, sport, exercise,
Editor Rating:

While most of us are quite happy to sit in a circle and sing silly songs with actions and animated faces, or run around with our child and encourage physical fitness and development with big bright eyes, smiles and voices nearing the pitch of Dora the Explorer, there comes a time when your child may be ready to, and should begin to, participate on their own.

Your child may be around 2-3 years old and you may be wondering if this is the right time to sit on the sidelines and enjoy your child’s activity as a spectator instead of an active participant. Although every child develops at their own pace, most won’t go right from playing with a parent directly to playing on their own without a transition.

Think of this transition as a bridge and you want to get from one side to the other as smoothly as possible, with minimal tantrums and without getting stuck. Children in their early years thrive on routine and when there is a change, transitions really help them feel comfortable, confident and in control of the situation.

It’s all about managing your child’s expectations. If your child expects you to participate during the entire activity and you suddenly, and without notice, sneak away to sit on the sidelines or leave the activity room and head for the viewing/waiting area, your child may feel worried or uncomfortable. Even leaving to use the washroom or to get something from the car or stroller you parked outside without notice can lead to tears – even from older, school-age children.

Obviously, you always place your child’s safety first so if your child is participating in an activity such as gymnastics or swimming lessons where there is a safety factor involved, you would ensure the instructor was aware of, involved in, and on the transition bridge with you and your child. Many of these types of activities will incorporate a transition of this nature within their programming.

As you start your journey on this transition bridge, you may first actively participate and start to move towards sitting/standing close to your child as they participate but you just watch and encourage - you may still be in the activity area or just to the side, or if your child is really comfortable, you may be on the sidelines, but close by.

Some activities are really quite conducive for this transition bridge such as a parent-child play group, or our Little Kickers classes where parents are asked to stay in the same room/area as the activity. At Little Kickers, children return to their parents a few times during the session for scheduled water breaks and ‘high fives’. For children, this periodic connection with their parent during the session is both reassuring and encouraging.

Activities will often have a part of the session that is especially suitable as a starting point for the journey across the transition bridge. At Little Kickers for instance, the colour matching game in the ‘Little Kicks’ parent-child class is a great game for children to have a go at on their own once they are comfortable with the activity and their coaches.

Parents are encouraged to let children try this game on their own even if they new to the concept.

“Participating in a short activity alongside their friends and completing a simple task like matching colours all by themselves, with their grown up close by, is a real confidence builder for a young child. The idea is for children to gradually participate independently in other areas of the class as they progress both in social and physical development”, says coach Mark Nicholson.

In the ‘Junior Kickers’ or ‘Mighty Kickers’ classes, where children are encouraged to play independently, the circle-time intros and warm-up stretches is a great place for grown ups to participate, if required, so their child becomes comfortable with the group and the coaches. After this, the child can hopefully continue with the rest of the class on their own, or work towards that goal!

Be sure to talk with your child before the activity so they know what to expect. For example:

“Mummy is going to sit with you for hellos and stretches. After stretches, Mummy is going to sit with the other grown-ups and cheer from the sidelines.”

Give as many details as appropriate for your child so there are no surprises. The more your child feels in control of the situation the more comfortable and confident they will be!

The best advice is to really understand your child’s needs and feelings and do what’s best for your specific situation.

Remember each child is different – even siblings!

Some parents and children take their time on the transition bridge. If your child has some social anxieties (like our daughter) then you may need to take your time, relax, have fun and understand that you’ll take a few steps forward and a couple of steps back – with time, patience and encouragement from you, your child will have the confidence to say their own name in circle time and participate independently! Other parents and children skip right along this bridge to independent play. If your child seems to listen and respond better to a grown-up who isn’t a parent (isn’t that annoying?) and/or is quite happy to participate on their own (like our son), then wipe that proud tear away and let them go for it!

In either case, ensure your child can always see you – they will look back and check! This is both for their sense of security “Good, Daddy’s still there”, and their confidence “Did you see, Mummy? I scored!”

Once you have successfully made it across the bridge to independent play, it’s important to continue to be engaged and involved in your child’s activity from the sidelines. We’re all guilty from time-to-time of checking our phones, catching up on some reading or work, having a chat, or paying attention to our other child(ren) on the sidelines with us, but if your child does something they are really proud of, they will want to know you saw it and you’re really proud too!

Good luck out there on the pitch and remember it’s all about fun and encouraging a healthy, active lifestyle!

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