When Jeff and Ann Chapetta started looking for activities for their 18-month-old twin girls, they were stunned to find a sports program geared just for them. The All Starz Sports Complex in Loves Park offers soccer classes for children beginning at age 18 months. The program, called Lil’ Kickers, offers classes for children as old as 9.
When Jeff and Ann Chapetta started looking for activities for their 18-month-old twin girls, they were stunned to find a sports program geared just for them.
“We were really shocked, because as far as sports and activities, there’s not much of anything around that starts this early,” Jeff said. “We didn’t know what to expect, because obviously, they’re not capable of playing the game at this point.”
But what they are capable of is learning how to interact with others and listen to directions on a playing field, key fundamentals in team sports. That’s why the Chapettas jumped at the chance to start their girls in a soccer program at such a young age.
The All Starz Sports Complex in Loves Park offers soccer classes for children beginning at age 18 months. The program, called Lil’ Kickers, offers classes for children as old as 9. It is a nationwide program that is available in 27 states, with 13 franchises in Illinois.
Swimming lessons have been available for babies age 6 months and older for several years.
Children can start a parent-tot gymnastic class at academies such as the Gymnastics Academy of Rockford at 15 months.
But when it comes to team sports, opportunities are scarce. The Rockford YMCA, for example, offers programs starting at age 3, but age 5 is generally when most local organizations begin offering children their first organized basketball or soccer games.
The Lil’ Kickers soccer program is one of the few opportunities for parents who want to get their children involved in team sports early.
“There’s nothing else like it,” said Michelle Shute, organizer and director of Lil’ Kickers.
Shute started the program two years ago when she was looking for something for her own daughter, Jessica, now 5, to be involved in. A native of England, Shute has a program with eight divisions offered year-round.
“The Bunnies (18 months to 24 months) are actually one of the biggest classes, just because a lot of the parents can’t find anything else for them,” Shute said. “That’s why I started it.
“Being from England, it was always the biggest sport back home, and I love soccer. But the classes are also about coordination, interaction, social skills, behavioral skills. It’s a lot of playing.”
But parents shouldn’t view these classes as a way to turn their children into the next Mia Hamm. It’s noncompetitive soccer. Games aren’t introduced until the children reach the classes offered for 4-year-olds and older.
Instead, children will start with balancing and coordination activities, such as building cone towers. They play games incorporating soccer balls and hula hoops. Eventually, they learn how to pass and trap balls, but those skills are introduced during games and activities rather than by simple instruction.
“It’s neat to see how they’re constantly evolving, especially in” the class for 18- to 24-month-olds, said Sally Bradley, who has two sons, James, 4, and Henry, 2, involved. “They’ll actually take something they’ve learned the week before and improve each week.”
As with any sport, just because children are introduced to soccer early doesn’t mean they have an advantage over children who haven’t had soccer classes. Parents can kick a soccer ball around with their 18-month-old at home for no cost. But the experience of working with others is what is valuable.
Gordy Poluyanskis, director of coaching for the Rockford Raptors and Dactyls Soccer Club, said programs for such young players are good because of the fun and friendship the children find, not because of any soccer skills they learn.
“It’s a perfect setting for kids to learn to socialize outside of the home and school settings,” Poluyanskis said. “It is really an introductory to team sports and confidence-building for young children.”
At the Rockford YMCA, the youngest age for peewee sports is 3. Peewee soccer starts at age 4, and youth basketball leagues start as young as age 5. But like the Lil’ Kickers program, they are more instructional and fun than they are competitive.
“It is much more about cooperating with the instructor and getting along with others,” said Donna Anderson, the YMCA’s Child Services director. “I think one of the dangers of introducing sports at an early age is not the physical activity, but the pressure it may put upon our children.”
And even though it sounds young, 18 months is not too soon to start thinking about athletics, Rockford pediatrician Mustafa Asim said. With the amount of childhood obesity, Asim is happy to see young children active.
“Any physical activity is encouraged,” Asim said. “As long as their children have had regular visits to their pediatrician or family doctor and there are no other medical concerns, and of course, there’s good supervision.
“Eighteen months is a small age, but just like we let them play with toys according to age, activities should also be according to age. As long as the parents aren’t pushing them, and there are licensed, professional people who know what they’re doing, then we encourage it.”
Emily Tropp can be reached at (815) 987-1385 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lil' Kickers soccer for kidsWhere: All Starz Sports Complex, Loves Park
Who: Children 18 months to 9 years
Contact: Michelle Shute, (815) 399-6074