Little League: A developmental tool?

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I have been thinking about baseball lately with spring training starting next week, little league starting up, my son who has injured his leg playing soccer so baseball is out this year and having watched moneyball for the second time last night. All this baseball on my mind inspired me to dig up an old paper I wrote about the developmental importance of little league. I wrote this in 1999 for my “Life-span Development” course at the California School of Professional Psychology – Los Angeles. Enjoy!

Baseball has been coined “Americas favorite pastime.” It has been enjoyed by all ages since the turn of the century. The game of baseball is a game of skill, cooperation, and competition. As an organized sport, baseball has manifested itself through the Major leagues, minor leagues, and the focus of this paper, the little leagues. The official age range to join the little leagues is five to twelve years old. This raises the interesting clinical question of whether or not five is the developmental appropriate age to participate in this organized support.

For those new to the game of baseball here is the basic breakdown. It is a game that requires two teams of nine to play against each other. One team attempts to hit a ball, one player at a time, either pitched or on a tee, into a field where the other team attempts to catch the ball or throw it to one of four bases before the opponent reaches that base. The object is to be able to run around the four bases to score after you have hit the ball. Depending on the kind of hit, a player may run to the first base and stay, or the second, and so on. A player at a base then waits for the other teammate to hit, and then runs further down the bases in an attempt to score. This will continue until there are three outs. An out is accomplished by the team in the field catching a hit ball in the air, throwing the running player out by getting the ball to a base before s/he does, or by the hitter swinging at the ball three times and missing. When this occurs the team that was in the field is up to bat, and the team that was hitting before is in the field. This goes on for nine innings or nine full rotations of the teams. There are many other details and exception to the general rules, but for our purposes this will do.

Baseball is a game that requires a certain physical ability to participate. A child of five years old is just beginning to develop these physical skills. The child is beginning physical independence. At this age a child develops mature motor control. The balance of a child is maturing at this age as well. The child can walk, run, and jump with ease. “Between the ages of 6 and 12, children become noticeably more agile in their large- muscle movements (running, jumping, hopping, twisting, catching) (Thomas, R.M. 1990).” A child is also beginning to sense a physical preference over their right or left hand. However, a child does not have complete hand-eye coordination yet. Nevertheless, these are all necessary physical skills to begin the acquisition of the sport of baseball.

A child must be able to run in order to make it around the bases. A child must have appropriate balance skills in order to have the appropriate stance to hit the ball. A child must also have the ability to catch fly balls, which begins to occur at this age and begins to noticeably mature at age six. Having a preference of your right or left hand is important, allowing the child to develop a specific hitting style. However, one physical concern at having five-year-olds playing baseball is their lack of complete hand-eye coordination. In little league this is actually taken into account. The first entry level to little league is tee ball, which is where the ball is not pitched. The ball rests on a large tee to be hit by the child. This takes less of a mastery of hand-eye coordination then would hitting a pitched ball.

Physically, little league seems to be age appropriate. In fact, it would seem to be a perfect opportunity to allow children to hone in on their physical development and ability. The skills needed to play baseball are just beginning to develop at five years old. Having a sport that allows a child to work on their physical skills is a very important and fun way for a child to develop these skills. As a parent, I would want my child to have this opportunity to foster an understanding of their physical ability and limitations and be able to develop them through the game of baseball. This outside activity beats the Wii and XBox Kinect any day. However, baseball is not only a physical game, but also requires appropriate cognitive skills.

“By age five, the child has mastered his sensorimotor play sequences and is developing the ability to integrate knowledge concerning reciprocal roles, complex plots, and a vast array of objects and meanings into coherent themes (Trad, P.V. 1990).” At age five, according to Piaget, a child is at the end of his/her preoperational stage. The child’s speech becomes more social and less egocentric. Soon the child will be in the concrete operations stage where s/he becomes even “more allocentric, meaning that the child can now better understand other’s perspectives (Thomas, R.M. 1990).” Rules of a game are not completely developed, but authoritative do’s and don’ts are understood. However, in the concrete operational stage rules are slowly understood and adhered to.

In baseball, the cognition needed to play is just forming in the entering little leaguer. Baseball has many rules that need to be followed and the five-year-old child is
slowly gaining this ability. Baseball is also a team sport and requires a less egocentric cognitive style, which is another ability developing at this age. The complexity of baseball can be enjoyed at many cognitive levels. However, below the age of five, a child would not be equipped to enjoy the sport on an organIzed level.     .

While a five-year-old child is just beginning to gain the cognitive skills to play baseball, one may argue that the minimum age to enter little league should be six. A six-year-old is more of a concrete logical thinker. I would rebut that a five year old is just beginning to join the ranks of the concrete thinker, and being a part of a baseball team will help make that transition easier and the development stronger. Five is a perfect cognitive age to begin playing, and, as a parent, I would strongly encourage my child to play. This leads into what I believe to be the most important reason to have little leagues. In addition to the physical and cognitive skills, baseball requires the development of social skills.

At age five, a child begins to develop heightened social skills in comparison to the year’s prior. The child learns to give and receive as well as observe and compete with others. Again, this illustrates the move away from the egocentrism that has been a part of the child life until now. The child actually prefers to play with other children instead of playing alone. At this age the child is at the end of Erikson’s psychosocial stage of “Initiative vs. Guilt.” Here the child is initiating his/her own activities, cooperating with others, and broadening his/her skills through active play of all sorts. However, the child is also on the fringe of Erikson’s next stage of “Industry vs. Inferiority.” Here the child relates to peers according to rules. The child progresses from free play to play that may be elaborately structured by rules and demand for formal teamwork. Here the child begins to master the more formal skills of life learning. S/he becomes more competent and confident in activities valued by their peers and adults. However, in both these stages, if growth is not encouraged then the child may feel guilty for his/her independent desires and inferior in his/her development.

In baseball, the social component is one of the most crucial aspects of the sport. It is a team game, and will not function otherwise. A five-year-old child is forming the ability to understand the concept of a team. Baseball is also a game with many rules and would lose all structure without them. A five-year-old now understands rules. At five it is more “yes” and “no” rules, but a good coach will be able to explain the game that way. Nevertheless, the child will soon enter the stage of understanding complex rules and regulation. One can’t play baseball without the appropriate social skills. There are nine players on a team that need to constantly think of each other. A five-year-old is just beginning to grasp this.

Baseball, especially for the camaraderie that it creates, is a wonderful social skills builder. A five.year·old child is just beginning to see the world outside of his/her personal space. To give a child the opportunity to foster relationships and begin formal social activity is a necessary task of parenthood. To not allow my child to participate in little league, or the sort, would be detrimental to his/her developmental growth. Age five is the perfect age to begin a child in the social environment of little league. Baseball is a game of physical, cognitive, and social competence. The minimum age to enter little league is five years old and ranges up to twelve or fourteen, depending on the city. These are crucial years of development that baseball caters to. There is a reason why little leagues can be found in any town and city in this country. America’s favorite pastime may actually be America’s best psychological tool of development.

Thomas, R.M. (1990). Counseling and life-span development. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Trad, P.Y. (1990). Counseling with preschool children: Uncovering developmental patterns. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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