Unfortunately, they're also a good way for children to suffer injuries, especially if they aren't taking proper precautions.
A recent study by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found children aged 5 to 14 had the highest sports-related injury rate of any age group, with 59.3 injuries per 1,000 people. That's more than double the national average sports injury rate of 25.9 injuries per 1,000 individuals.
"The bottom line is, kids lead the list as far as injuries are concerned," said Dr. Lyle Micheli, head of the sports medicine division at Children's Hospital Boston and an associate professor of orthopedics at Harvard University.
And with April designated as National Youth Sports Safety Month, doctors are reminding parents they should make sure their children are protecting themselves when they hit the gymnasium or playing field.
That kind of advice might have spared Nick Danforth years of pain.
The high school senior from Marblehead, Mass., has played lacrosse since the third grade and football all through high school. He's also suffered a ruptured disc and currently is recuperating from a serious bone fracture that required major surgery to his leg.
Danforth said his first severe injury happened in eighth grade, while playing lacrosse. An MRI scan revealed a ruptured disc in his back. He believes at least part of the injury came from a lack of proper physical training that would have made his body more resilient to injury.
"At the middle school level there are no real methods to keep kids from getting injured," Danforth said.
It's not just contact sports such as football or ice hockey that cause injury, doctors warn.
"Any sport can be dangerous," Micheli says. "Every sport has its own risks and every athlete has their own risk factors."
Micheli notes that for children under the age of 14, sports such as gymnastics, skating and swimming carry a high risk of injury -- particularly if a child is training too much. That's when they could suffer pulled muscles, torn ligaments or other soft tissue injuries.
Knees are number one when it comes to injury, followed by ankles, he says.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission says almost 4 million children aged 5 to 16 sustained some type of sports injury in 2002 that required medical attention. Another 8 million kids were suspected of shrugging off their injury and playing hurt. Those numbers have doubled over the past decade, according to the commission.
The National Youth Sports Safety Foundation says that about 12 million of the 40 million American children who participate in youth sports will suffer at least a minor injury, such as tendonitis, during the year.
Parents should consider a number of factors before letting their children participate in a sport, says Rita Glassman, co-executive director of the foundation.
In essence, parents have to become "second coaches" for their children, particularly since many coaches are well-meaning volunteers with little training, Glassman says.
They should consider the child's personal health history and the family's medical history, along with any previous injuries the child might have suffered. They also should have the child undergo a medical exam before they begin a sport.
The parents also should become familiar with the sport and its inherent risks, and check out the specific program in which their child will participate.
"They should make sure the coach is certified in first aid and CPR, and also certified by the national governing body of the sport he or she is teaching," Glassman says.
Parents also can protect their children by making sure the kids:
Micheli says he's a big fan of training and exercise as ways to prevent injuries in children. He recommends at least an hour of good general exercise every day.
"There's a growing concern that our kids are less fit, and less-fit kids have a greater chance of injury," Micheli says. "Strengthening tissues can reduce the mechanical stress on the body that can cause injuries in muscles, bones and ligaments."
He also advocates urging your child to use common sense while playing, even when the coach gives them an order.
"They should be aware that if the coach tells them something that doesn't make sense, it may not make sense," Micheli says. "They should know to come tell you about it."
Finally, parents should keep unseen injuries in mind when choosing their child's sports program, Glassman says.
"Children also sustain emotional injuries playing sports, and parents should find out what the philosophy of the program is," Glassman says. "Some programs stress winning over development, and you should know that going in."
To avoid further injury, Danforth said he'll concentrate on his flexibility and his fitness, making sure his body will be able to take whatever punishment is dished out on the field.
"I've learned that you don't go into a season out of shape," he said. "If you go into a season unprepared, you're bound to get injured."