Toddler and preschooler sport participation: Take-up, pathways, and patterns of engagement


While prominent life-span sport participation and development models suggest children enter organized sport at approximately six years of age (i.e., Developmental Model of Sport Participation [DMSP], Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2016; Long-Term Athlete Development Model [LTAD], CS4L, 2016), current trends indicate active free play is being replaced by organized sport at markedly younger ages (AAP, 2019; ParticipACTION, 2018). As limited research captures children's sport experiences during the early years (i.e., ages 0-6), this study aimed to advance understanding of toddler and preschooler sport participation, by exploring patterns of sport take-up, pathways, and general patterns of engagement. Data were collected through external program observations of five early-years sport programs (i.e., multi-sport, soccer, hockey, rugby, and gymnastics), as well as 10 semi-structured parent interviews (Mage = 36.4; six female, four male), who each had a child between 3-5 years of age enrolled in one of the aforementioned programs. Results offer novel insight into toddler and preschooler children's sport, organized physical activity, active-play, and unstructured sport habits, while also highlighting common features and engagement patterns within early-years sport programs (e.g., structure, movement/sport skill focus, play-based activities). Findings suggest existing models (i.e., DMSP, Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2016; LTAD, CS4L, 2016) do not reflect or align with the delivery of or experiences within early-years sport programming. Future research is needed to determine what engagement patterns/program activities are optimal for toddler and preschooler development, to in turn contribute to refined versions of models, while acknowledging that sport participation is occurring prior to six years of age.

Acknowledgments: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada [grant no. 435-2016-1630], and Ontario Graduate Scholarship.