What are the best ages to learn various things?
August 22, 2011 1:15 PM   Subscribe

I live in NYC, where there are classes for children starting at birth. Baby yoga and soccer for 18 month olds and visual art as soon as they can stand. What are the best ages to start learning specialized things (assuming one is interested), like piano, ballet, swimming, baseball, soccer, chess, trapeze, animal husbandry, foreign language, martial arts, theater, etc.? I took gymnastics when I was nine and found that anyone who was competitively good at it had begun at six.
posted by xo to Education (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My martial arts school offers classes as early as four, and that seems to be the rock-bottom in terms of physical, mental, and emotional development for a group physical activity class with a greater than 1:1 teacher-student ratio. (And we spend a large percentage of the half-hour working on getting kids to keep their clothes on and refrain from licking the mirrors.) I'm sure it changes if the parents are actively involved in the class, though.

For martial arts in particular, there's a definite minimum developmental point where we can effectively teach a kid how to punch and also not to punch (people, the dog, grandma, etc.) Four seems to be close enough for most kids.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:20 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

My parents started my brother and me on extracurriculars when we were four. I started with piano, ballet, and tee-ball. My brother started with piano, tee-ball, and (if I remember correctly) a tumbling class. We went to a school that started Spanish class (not an immersion program or anything, just class) at four.

As we got older, we added more things (tap, jazz, acrobatics, basketball, soccer, saxophone, drums) and my parents set arbitrary rules on when we could quit (seven years of piano! five years of ballet!). I'm not sure how much I agree with the latter (if they're not interested after putting in at least a year of effort, let them quit), but four was a good age.

So I'd go with four. At four, it's early enough to capitalize on the kids-are-sponges-and-can-learn-anything bit, and early enough that if they demonstrate actual ability in any arena, they'll have a leg up on pursuing it competitively. And four is old enough that you can be at a lesson for an hour without your parents present and not have a meltdown. I wouldn't do any earlier than four, that just sounds insane. (But I'm not a parent.) (I intend to start my hypothetical future kids on structured activities when they're four.)
posted by phunniemee at 1:24 PM on August 22, 2011

I don't think there is a one-size fits all answer. It will vary by kid. You starting at six would not have necessarily made much of a difference. You may not have been ready. I think any organized class for kids younger than four or five is just trumped up babysitting in most cases. It's not bad for the kids, but I don't think it is a particular benefit for the specialized activity.
posted by COD at 1:25 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

You need to define "best age" better - are you aiming for world-class competitive, professional athlete/musician/whatever, school/college star or plain old well-developed, happy child levels?
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:32 PM on August 22, 2011

I have two kids 3 and 7.

For sports, I think ages 3 -4 are mostly for learning teamwork and having fun (you know, not licking the mirror, as restless_nomad said). Starting at ages 5-6, though, you could see the difference between kids who had a little bit of classes (and natural talent or parents who worked with them and taught them rules) and kids who didn't. Beyond that, it's almost too late to get started. Like you, I started athletic extracurriculars too late as a child to feel comfortable doing them, so I'm sensitive to this.

For piano, though, my piano teacher mother won't take girls younger than 5 and boys younger than six because they don't have the patience and dexterity to get anything out of it.

The 3yo is getting his first non-daycare class this fall, tumbling. His brother had soccer at 3-4 and got nothing out of it, but clearly some kids did because at 6 there were standouts in his league.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 1:36 PM on August 22, 2011

It's also worth reiterating that at those age ranges kids are a) not developing at exactly the same rate and b) not the same age as each other. A kid who turned four last week and a kid who's four-and-a-half are at visibly different stages of development. (Gladwell made this the subject of one of the sections of Outliers - here's an interview that talks a little bit about how this affects sports with youth league age cutoffs in particular.)
posted by restless_nomad at 1:43 PM on August 22, 2011

If you have any interest in violin, you want to start them as young as 3, more usually 4. They need to be young enough that they don't realize how truly dreadful they sound.
posted by Go Banana at 1:48 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have two kids, ages 3.5 and nine months. We've done a few "kindergym" classes that basically consist of letting a bunch of toddlers loose on the tumbling mats, interspersed with a few songs. It's great in the wintertime for getting the ya-yas out of an active little boy, but zero gymnastics training. I'd say that all starts at 4 or 5, depending on the kid.

The only place I think an early start is worth the effort is language. Our older one had a Spanish-speaking nanny and is now in a Spanish immersion preschool, and that's really paying off.
posted by ambrosia at 1:53 PM on August 22, 2011

Kids soak up a new language, but not by going to class once a week, at least in my experience. Both my kids have the language gene, I don't. But the Spanish they learned from their nanny stuck with them better than the little-kid French classes I started them on when they were small. Even when they could chatter at each other, it wasn't the same as immersion.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:02 PM on August 22, 2011

That's interesting, Ideefixe. My parents dropped me into a French immersion preschool for six months when I was four years old, and then I didn't study French again until 7th grade, but there were lots of words that I just knew what they meant the first time I encountered them in class, and while I couldn't recall them cold before class, the understanding lurked somewhere in the memory banks. It's not the same thing as daily exposure, but I'd still argue the long-term benefits of early language instruction are likely greater than trying to teach a three year old karate or piano.
posted by ambrosia at 2:28 PM on August 22, 2011

I would start swimming very young, but that's more about water comfort and safety than competition.

Go Banana's comment about the violin is definitely right. I started Suzuki violin lessons when I was 3. I actually hated it but my parents pushed me in the "you'll appreciate it later" way. I hate to say it but they were right, I really appreciate how musical I am now!

I started French lessons in 2nd grade at school which I loved and am very thankful for. It was fairly casual (a lot of vocabulary, songs, etc) through 4th grade I believe, then in 5th grade we started a high-school level book - I went into French 3 in High School.
posted by radioamy at 2:30 PM on August 22, 2011

The only things I started before age 4 were swimming and language, although the language(s) were learned at home and not in an actual class environment. Once I was four, the dance/gymnastics/athletics began, and I started piano at maybe 7.

Also, my elementary school started teaching Latin in first grade, so by the time I got to junior high, taking French and Spanish together was dead simple.

Also also, my dad started me on early learning science immersion (at home) when I was prolly 4, maybe 5 - basic chemistry, biology, &c, plus hands-on building stuff.
posted by elizardbits at 2:57 PM on August 22, 2011

For what it's worth, I'm not convinced starting kids on musical instruments is worth it younger than 8 or so, and then, only piano and MAYBE string instruments. But still, many professional musicians began in 4th or 5th grade in their school bands and orchestras, and they do great. This is just my opinion, though, and many will disagree with me. :)

One thing that is awesome for little kids is Kindermusik or a similar kid-and-adult music class, where they do singing, dancing, playing, etc. This kind of stuff (organized musicial play) is really wonderful for children's musical development, and I think is a better idea than trying to push anything more specifically.

(Public school music teacher, here).
posted by rossination at 3:28 PM on August 22, 2011

Yeah, the Suzuki line about starting kids on violin when they're three is (in my opinion) bullshit. I think three or four is a great age to start kids on some kind of musical appreciation -- I never had exposure to Kindermusik as described above (sounds awesome), but I started reading music and playing very simple piano at four, which set me up for success on instruments that I started "much later" (around nine).

I'm pretty sure that anyone who thinks that 8 year olds are super cognizant of how awful they sound, and would therefore refuse to play, has never been to a public elementary school concert.
posted by telegraph at 4:27 PM on August 22, 2011

The youngest section in scholastic chess tournaments is typically K-3 (some tournaments have a separate section for each grade, in which case there is a K section). I'm pretty sure kindergarteners are rare, though. Of the people I knew playing competitive chess, one started in kindergarten. Most started in third or fourth grade. I learned to play well before that, which I think was par for the course, but not seriously until fourth grade. In school districts where chess is more organised, they start earlier. But actual chess development seems to happen older and doesn't necessarily correlate with when you started. Among the people I grew up playing with, most of us had a switch flip somewhere along the line and we got a lot better quickly. Mostly, it was somewhere in junior high. For me, it was my senior year of high school. I'd always been a middling player and then suddenly I was good. Not actually good, mind you, but way better than I'd ever been. I went from being a weak bottom player on a slightly better-than-average but sorely undermanned high school team to being a solid bottom player on that team. (So maybe I could have gotten a place on teams that actually had to make decisions about who to play. We'd go to the state tournament without a full team some years.)

T-ball and soccer started in kindergarten. You didn't really start learning baseball properly until the 3rd/4th grade age group (also the age when kids start pitching). Where I grew up, AYSO was basically a joke all the way through. The club soccer teams had proper coaching and those teams formed at U8 or U9 and pretty much stayed together through high school and became the high school team.
posted by hoyland at 6:51 PM on August 22, 2011

I wrote an answer about when to start horseback riding here: short answer, around age 8 or older if the child is very small...if no one in your family is a competitive rider. If someone in your family is a competitive rider, then before the kid can walk is ideal.
posted by anaelith at 7:41 PM on August 22, 2011

I used to teach ballet & jazz.

My youngest class for ballet was four year olds. Their greatest accompishment for the year was learning to skip and pretend they were flowers opening to the sun, which was extremely cute. What was less cute was their frentic stage mothers asking me if their daughter would become a prima ballerina.

And I would just smile through gritted teeth while thinking "For fuck's sake, lady, she's four."

I saw my first production of ballet at the age of four and begged my parents for a year to put me in ballet classes. Their response for that entire year was "When you turn five." And having worked as a teacher, I can say they were right. Five year olds are a bit more mature and have a greater attention span; that would be my personal recommendation for the youngest age to start your kids in ballet or tap.

And absoultely no pointe shoes until they are at least 11 years old and have had the proper training to strengthen their legs, feet and core alignment in order to support themselves.

I also recommend at least 10 years old for starting jazz & hip-hop* because I prudishly feel there is a more sexual element to these two disciplines and really hate seeing extremely young kids mimicking booty pops. YMMV

* preferably supplemented by some ballet for core strength and flexibility
posted by romakimmy at 4:08 AM on August 23, 2011

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