Ball play for toddlers
Baby development expert Gill Connell explains the many benefits of ball play for growing brains and the best ways to tackle it.
In so many ways, the senses are the origins of all learning. In the early years, the senses act as ‘scouts’ for the brain, bringing back information about our world for the brain to interpret, analyse and record. For instance, what does a ball look like? What does it sound like? Smell like? Feel like? How does it move? What happens when I touch it? Bat it? Kick it? Roll it? In other words, the rollicking, rolling nature of a simple ball unlocks worlds of sensory stimulation.
For instance, ball play is ideal for developing eye tracking – the ability to move the eyes smoothly in any direction – a necessary precursor to independent reading when he gets older.
The gentle roll of a ball in front of baby’s field of vision is slow and steady enough for the eyes to keep up. And of course, when he’s a bit older, playing catch is a great way to develop his ability to focus by keeping his eye on the ball.
Our sense of balance underpins virtually everything by helping us manage orientation so we remain upright, whether we’re walking, running, or just sitting in a chair.
In other words, balance is our innate understanding of which way is up. But babies aren’t born with this sense. Balance must be learned through the many and varied experiences of natural movement all throughout the early years.
Ball play offers children lots of ways to put their sense of balance to the test. For instance, batting at or throwing a ball requires shifting weight from one foot to another. As simple as that sounds, it’s actually a very sophisticated movement pattern involving the whole body while focusing on a target.
Kicking a ball requires one-footedness – the ability to stay upright with only one foot on the ground, whether standing or running at full speed.
And just sit back and watch a child trying to sit on a ball that naturally wants to roll. It’s a true (and often giggly) test of finding and keeping your centre.
Our sense of intuition, also known as our proprioceptive sense (the sense of the neighbouring parts of our body and the effort used to move them), is what I refer to as our on-board GPS system for understanding and navigating space and objects.
Because of the roly poly, unpredictable nature of the ball, it will take children places they wouldn’t normally go. For instance, when the ball rolls under the coffee table a young toddler will likely think he can fit under the coffee table too, just like the ball.
It may take a few times before he realises hehas to make himself smaller in order to crawl under the table.
Hitting a target is another important way in which ball play fuels children’s sense of space. Not only do they have to navigate the available space the target offers, they have to experiment with their muscle strength to get the ball to the goal.
Nothing’s more fun than chasing a ball and nothing’s better for getting kids up and moving! With all that running around comes the strength, speed, and stamina that little ones need for high-energy, whole-body play, exploration, and learning all day long.
But in addition, for a young child ball play actually provides a tangible measure of his body’s capabilities. If I give it my all, just how far can I kick that ball?
Ball play is a powerful partner in developing coordination – mastering the many complex movements of the different parts of the body.
A simple game of catch is jam-packed with coordination challenges. The simple act of throwing a ball demands a high level of eye-hand coordination involving the arms, hands, legs, and feet simultaneously, all while keeping his eyes focused on his target.
Catching a ball is even trickier. While keeping his eye on the on-coming ball, he has to move to meet it. Do I move to the left or right? Do I run forward or back up?
And all of these decisions need to be made under the time pressures of the ball’s anticipated arrival. This is known as temporal awareness – the ability to judge distance and timing.
Some games require targeting a goal or another player. Some require a gentle, nuanced touch. Some require a powerful strike or kick. And some require all of those elements. Knowing how to control your body movements to meet your objective is a tangible lesson for children in what self-control can do for them.
With all the potential benefits of ball play, it’s never too early to introduce its simple joys. Here are a few ideas to get you started…
My First Football!
For children not yet walking
Collect a variety of balls of different sizesand textures.
Lie baby on the floor, or if he’s sitting up independently (without pillows behind him) sit him up facing you. Take off his socks and shoes so he can get a rich sensory experience with the different textures.
Start by touching the ball to his feet and rolling it all around his feet and legs. Place the ball between his ankles and gently squeeze to hold it in place. Slowly roll the ball up to his feet and bounce it against his feet. Do this repeatedly at the same pace to encourage him to kick at the ball.
For children who are crawling and/or walking
For this you can use a purchased fabric children’s tunnel or make your own by laying a blanket over a couple of chairs. Place baby in the tunnel and go around to the other side. Encourage him to crawl to you. As baby crawls through the tunnel, roll a soft ball to him. Once he understands this silly game of catch, advance the play by rolling the ball through the tunnel for him to chase after.
For children walking & running
Balls can climb to heights children can’t yet reach! To practice throwing, hold up a scarf or other colourful target and encourage your child to throw the ball as high as he can. Cheer each time he reaches or goes higher than the goal, then lift him up to the goal so he can see for himself just what it looks like when you aim high!
Whether you have an All Black-in-the-making or a Charlie Brown who misses the kick every time, get outside and play ball!
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