Softball and Baseball for Kids

This classic youth sport still has plenty of fans, young and old.

Baseball for kids - post-game greeting
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Softball and baseball for kids may lag behind some other youth sports in popularity. But this all-American classic could still be a home-run hit for your child.

The basics: Two teams of nine players alternate between offense and defense. Offensive players try to score runs by hitting the baseball with a bat, then running around the bases on the diamond while the defensive players try to field the ball.

While on offense, players only bat and run the bases. On defense, they play positions including pitcher (who throws the ball to the batter), catcher (who catches the ball and returns it to the pitcher), and outfielders who try to catch the ball and throw it to the bases to prevent the runner from successfully arriving at the base.

Age kids can start: 4 or 5 (tee ball); 7 or 8 (coach-pitch or player-pitch teams).

Skills needed/used: Teamwork and sportsmanship; strength; eye-hand coordination; sport- and position-specific skills such as pitching, fielding, and running.

Best for kids who are: Social/team-oriented; patient and attentive enough to cope with baseball's slower pace.

Season/when played: Spring and summer (elite teams or those in warmer climates may play year-round).

Team or individual? Team. Both boys and girls can play baseball on kids' co-ed teams, and both boys and girls can also play softball.

Single-sex scholastic teams are also common, with the familiar junior varsity and varsity set-up. Exceptional athletes can go on to play professional baseball or softball.

Levels: Little League, one of the biggest organized programs for baseball for kids, has a series of levels based on age and ability: Tee Ball (for 5- to 6-year-olds); Minor League (for 7- to 11-year-olds), Major League (for 9- to 12-year-olds; also simply known as Little League), Junior League (for ages 12 to 14), Senior League (for ages 13 to 16), and Big League (ages 15 to 18).

PONY (Protect Our Nation's Youth) Baseball and Softball also several age-grouped levels of teams. PONY uses a narrower age grouping to try to form teams in which players’ size and ability are similar.

Appropriate for kids with special needs: Yes (outdoor play may pose challenges for kids with severe allergies or asthma). Little League runs a Challenger division especially for kids with mental and physical disabilities. Teams are set up according to ability, rather than age, and players can participate in one of three levels: tee-ball, coach-pitch or player pitch.

In the Miracle League, kids with disabilities play on a special field with a rubberized surface (which is easier for wheelchairs and kids in walkers to navigate).

Fitness factor: Varies. Baseball can be a slow-paced game, and some players, especially younger ones, may spend a lot of time lingering in the outfield and not getting much physical activity. As kids grow, play becomes more aggressive and athletic.

Equipment: Glove (also called mitt) for fielding balls, batting glove, batting helmet, cleats, uniform. Catchers use special protective gear such as face masks and shin guards.

Costs: Minimal for beginning players; can be much higher for older or elite players, especially those on travel teams.

On such teams, costs to play can soar as high as $6,000 per season, not counting lodging, gas, etc.

Time commitment required: As with most youth sports, time commitment grows exponentially as players rise up the ranks to elite or travel teams. Beginners may have just one practice and/or game per week, while more accomplished athletes will practice several days a week and devote nearly every summer weekend to games and tournaments.

Potential for injury: Medium to high (even though baseball is not a contact sport). Softer balls (called "safety" or "RIF," for "reduced injury factor" balls), often used by younger players, reduce the risk and severity of head injuries.

Breakaway bases (also called safety-release bases) greatly reduce the risk of ankle sprains and other injuries caused by players sliding into bases. Beginning in 2008, Little League mandated used of breakaway bases for all levels of play.

Just like their major-league counterparts, young players can suffer an overuse injury if they throw too many pitches. Coaches and parents need to make sure junior pitchers' arms get plenty of rest. Get a tip sheet on preventing baseball or softball injuries from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

How to find a program:

Associations and governing bodies:

If your child likes baseball, also try: Cricket (for international flavor), kickball, racquet sports.