This is Emily Marsteller's third year as a soccer sibling. Every Saturday, her family piles into their red Isuzu Trooper and drives from Spring Valley to the soccer fields adjacent to the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, where the DC Stoddert League's Tigers have their match of the week.
As brother Wiley, 6, joins the pack chasing the ball down the field, "Emmie" begins her weekly ritual on the sidelines. Like Mary Poppins with her bottomless bag, Emmie, 4, unzips a royal blue Ninja Turtles knapsack, pulling out a remarkable assortment of activities to fill the next 60 minutes. Crayons and markers, felt boards and magnetic play boards, books and plastic dolls. Then there's the food: Goldfish crackers and juice boxes and fruit snacks shaped like zoo animals.
Every weekend from September to November and April to June -- and, for some, even the winter and summer months -- thousands of soccer siblings are schlepped to hundreds of games throughout the Washington area. That adds up to a powerful chorus of "I'm bored!"
With some parental persuasion, siblings can get involved in the game and learn a thing or two about the most popular sport in the world.The most obvious hook is an invitation from mom or dad to kick a ball around. It helps to bring along an extra one, or you can borrow one of the team's practice balls that inevitably clutter the sidelines. Be prepared to chase after toddlers who run onto the playing field; they don't stop to contemplate the meaning of the lines meticulously painted onto the grass by dedicated coaches at 7:30 in the morning.
Some experts think these younger kids make better rookies than their older brothers and sisters; they learn to handle a soccer ball much earlier and, by the time their turn comes, are more than ready to play rather than watch.
Most soccer clubs have strict rules about age cut-offs. However, last year, the Rose-Jerome family played in the ultra-low-key Lafayette League in Northwest, which allowed younger sister Diana, then in pre-kindergarten, to play on the same team as older sister Rachel, though the girls are 2 years apart. Father Richard Jerome coached. Although Rachel was a little bent out of shape at first at having Diana on her team, she grew to like it, says mother Elizabeth Rose.
Here are some other ways to keep the family together on soccer weekends:
*There's nothing a soccer sibling likes more than another soccer sibling. Friendships occur naturally, play dates inevitably are made between games, and teams are created once the kids are eligible -- usually around age 5. That's how DC Stoddert's Grasshoppers -- now in their fourth season -- spawned the newly formed Crickets, made up of several Grasshopper siblings.
*Involve younger children in organizing snacks for the big kids. Game snacks range from boxes of doughnuts to granola bars bought in bulk. Consider a traditional alternative: cut oranges in quarters and have your youngster arrange them on a plate and serve them during breaks in the play.
*Discover seasonal diversions, suggests Northwest soccer mom Ellen Goldmuntz, whose 8-year-old son Justin has been playing for three years and 5-year-old son Peter started this season. Last year, Peter and his mom collected colorful leaves in the fall and made bouquets of buttercups in the spring.
*One enterprising older brother set up shop near his sibling's game, selling lemonade on warm days and coffee as the weather grew colder. Check with your league about any restrictions relating to entrepreneurial endeavors.
*Take turns with other parents escorting children to adjacent playgrounds for 15 minutes at a time. Then switch with another parent and give yourself time to catch a portion of the game. Don't send your kids off to the playground by themselves and never lose track of where they are, warns a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police, who adds that it is easy for parents to let their guard down at soccer games.
*Of course, one easy way to keep the peace with youngsters who can't stand the idea of being forced to attend yet another soccer game is not to go. Seven-year-old Alex Damato of Northwest has gone to his share of 8-year-old brother Stephen's soccer games, but never cared to play himself. "The first couple years we all went," says mother Mona Weingarten. Last year, Alex chose to spend Saturday mornings on outings with his father, who was happy to get one-on-one time with him playing miniature golf or visiting museums. .
Child psychologist and soccer parent Richard Fritsch reminds parents:
"Some kids are not temperamentally cut out to be soccer players. Some would rather play violin or read a book or draw a picture." It's okay for siblings to pursue different activities. "We celebrate that," Fritsch says.