Sylvia Singleton started her Washington-area tennis program five years ago, offering lessons and classes for children 7 and older. Soon parents asked whether she would make exceptions for some 6-year-olds. Next came requests for 5-year-olds, followed closely by requests for 4-year-olds.
Now her lessons are open to children as young as 21/2. Singleton estimates that 70% of her several hundred students from the Washington area are younger than 7.
"Word got out that I was teaching young kids, and now I'm teaching mostly young kids," she said.
Parents and sports organizers say demand for sports classes and teams for children younger than 5 is exploding.
Many parents say they aren't trying to make stars or prodigies of their children, only to teach them when they're most open to new ideas and are least self-conscious--as with piano lessons or another language.
Parents and psychologists also say the downward creep, at the nexus of society's pursuits of health and achievement, has resulted in some children being adept at a sport by 6 or 7--and other children who feel hopelessly behind and demoralized at that age if they're not.
"Five is the general age for almost anything out there--that's what people are used to. When we started this at 3, it was something new, and the demand was definitely out there," said Jason Haley, a sports specialist with Loudoun County, Va.
Singleton said starting tennis as young as possible helps keep children from developing "mental hang-ups."
Children "ages 2 and 3 are like sponges. They can really learn it. At age 4, it's too late. They're already choking," she said. "When you start young, it becomes like walking or talking, it's just the way you are. If you start later, it takes longer for it to go into your muscle memory."
Singleton said she tailors lessons to each child, helping build confidence. By age 6, Singleton said, many of her students can take on teenagers and win.
Cindy Cheamitru, preschool supervisor for the Montgomery County, Md., Recreation Department, said the growth of preschool sports has paralleled new demand for all kinds of activities for that age group. Piano and dance lessons have long enrolled very young children, but they also have been flooded with new participants not long out of diapers.
Many parents who enroll young children in sports, dance and other classes say they help teach coordination and concentration, skills that help when children start kindergarten. They also hope to keep their children from becoming reliant on television or video games for entertainment.
"I don't care what my kids do later in life, but I don't want them to be couch potatoes," Theresa Jaafari said as she stood with water at the ready, watching her 3- and 5-year-old daughters practicing at a recent Loudoun soccer class.
At this age, Coach Virginia Young said, children are perfectly capable of learning basic soccer skills. Even at 3 or 4, children can see that some are naturally better at the skills than others. That kind of competition, fostered in an environment in which children learn about sportsmanship, can be healthy, she said.
Many parents express ambivalence about the classes. They say they worry about putting stress on their toddlers and have nervously read studies that say children need time just to play. At the same time, they are wary of stories such as the one told by Kathy Lague:
The Sterling, Va., mother enrolled her daughter in a tap-dance class for 5- to 8-year-olds when the girl asked for it--at 7. But most of the other children were 5 or 6. They were smaller and cuter in their costumes, not to mention more graceful, with several years of dance classes under their belts. Discouraged, the girl quit.
"If you don't put your child into something when they're 3, forget it, you're done," Lague said.
Some experts said fear of falling behind isn't a good reason to get children started young, especially because there's no evidence that late starters cannot catch up, and there's evidence that early starters burn out quickly.
"This is parental anxiety--they fear the other kids will get advanced. There's just no truth to that," said David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and former president of the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children. Elkind said children get the exercise they need by playing on the playground and have time to learn coordination and how to pay attention to a teacher when they hit school.