Mason Boggs starts off strong, sprinting up and down the gym floor like a speed demon, the soccer ball almost up to the knees of his little legs. But after about 20 minutes, a pooped Mason is perched atop his mother’s shoulders, riding along while she kicks the ball instead.

Mason, after all, is just 3 years old. For him and the other toddlers gathered at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, soccer time falls somewhere between lunchtime and nap time.

At a growing number of fields and playgrounds across metro Atlanta, you’ll find these pint-size players. One league, in fact, offers sessions for children as young as 18 months. It’s soccer, sort of. While diapers might still be necessary for some, cleats are not required, nor are refs, uniforms or any other hard soccer rules.

“He loves it,” said Mason’s mom, Lisa Boggs of the Stone Mountain area. “Last week, he was kicking the ball back and forth, and he went home glowing, telling everyone he was a soccer superstar.”

Boggs recently enrolled Mason in a soccer program to follow his preschool class on Fridays. Neither she nor her husband are particularly athletic, she said, and she wanted to begin introducing her son to sports at a young age to nurture his interest in exercise.

There are music classes and tumbling classes for wee ones, so why not soccer instruction? Some think it could give their children an early edge in the competitive sport. But while soccer programs for little ones are growing in popularity, it’s open to debate whether these players are really ready to learn the game or just fulfilling a need to run around.

Cuteness and curiosity

Georgia Soccer, the national state soccer association, began sanctioning soccer programs for children as young as 3 about a year ago to respond to interest from parents of toddlers. Previously, the association only endorsed teams with players as young as 4.

Jacob Daniel, Georgia Soccer‘s director of coaching, said programs for younger children can help them develop motor skills and get exercise. But, he said, it’s not really soccer at this age.

For instance, each child must have his or her own ball. No one keeps score. They can’t play competitive games yet, because they can’t grasp the team concept. “Practices” are kept short, 30 to 45 minutes.

“They are going to look cute and chase a ball and satisfy a curiosity,” said Daniel. “But they are not playing soccer. … The ball is like a toy, so what parents should expect is using the ball to develop motor skills.”

So couldn’t parents just go to a park with their child and a ball and get the same benefits? For free?

Absolutely, said Daniel.

In fact, he said, that approach can be preferable.

“I would encourage parents go to the neighborhood park because in that sense, it’s not just a sport, but it’s family bonding time and quality time and [kids] can get that one-on-one attention,” he said.

Daniel says his goal is to make all play age-appropriate. For 3-year-olds, that means placing the focus on what he calls “movement education,” getting them to practice throwing a ball and twisting their bodies from one side to the next. He said parents shouldn’t expect 3-year-olds to dribble the ball with their feet.

About a third of Georgia Soccer‘s member leagues now have programs for kids as young as 3, a number Daniel expects to rise.

‘Pre-T-ball’ teams

Soccer is not the only sport pushing back its players’ traditional start date, though it may be ahead of the curve. About a year ago, the Little League Baseball and Softball organization gave the green light to kids under 5 to play Tee Ball, and an OK for kids as young as 4 to play “Pre T-ball.”

It’s one thing to get a bunch of pre-schoolers to run around with balls; it’s another to add bats and bases.

“I can’t imagine going any younger,” said Linda North, a state district administrator for Little League Baseball and Softball. “In baseball, only one kid has a bat in the hand at a time, and 3-year-olds just don’t have the patience. It’s tough for 4-year-olds, too, but that’s part of the beauty, too, of watching them.”

The Atlanta Youth Soccer Association recently launched an under-4 program in response to demand from parents, said AYSA president Rob Pollock. Younger siblings of kids already playing were itching to play, too, so parents were enrolling them in other programs.

Soccer, he said, has become not just a popular family pastime but also a community event people want to be part of.

“Quite honestly, it was an epiphany. It was like, what took us so long?” said Pollock.

Still, Pollock said, the league is are careful to make its programs age-appropriate, even if that means the kids aren’t really playing soccer.

“It’s getting kids out there, and them putting cleats on like their big brothers and sisters,” said Pollock. So “there are [some] kids picking daisies, and some kids kicking a ball.”

‘The most natural sport’

Georges Edeline’s Hall of Fame Soccer School in the Atlanta area has been grooming tiny-tot soccer players for more than a decade. The one-time college coach found a niche in programs focusing on children from 18 months to age 4.

Marni Mohr of Atlanta recently enrolled her 2-year old daughter Etta in Edeline’s program. Etta’s big brother, Sam, who’s 5, has been playing for years and has graduated to AYSA leagues.

Etta had shown interest in playing when she watched from the sidelines. But when it was her turn to get into the action, she spent her first practice crying the whole time.

“Who knows, maybe it was performance anxiety,” her mom joked.

They returned for another practice, and this time, Etta wanted to play.

Mohr said she has no doubt her son gained confidence and ball skills when playing as preschooler.

“He’s like a mini-coach, telling all of the other kids what to do, because he’s been playing for a while now,” she said.

Edeline believes it’s almost never too young to introduce children to soccer.

“It’s the most natural sport. Children are kicking [in the womb] even before they are born,” he said. “You just have to introduce a ball to their feet.”

Edeline uses games to help kids connect with soccer balls. On a recent afternoon, he had children waddle like penguins to teach them the correct way to kick a ball. They also played a Superman-inspired game in which they balance on top of a ball and pretend to fly.

“My motto is “safe, simple and fun,” he said.

He said he loves coaching kids at this age because it’s not about keeping score and it’s not too serious. It’s about the love of the game, he said.

“I say you win or learn, no losing. If they can play, they are winning,” he said.

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