Playing Ball Is a Great Way to Build Skills and Spend Time with Your Child
In this age of computer apps, video games, iPods, and all manner of electronic equipment vying for children’s attention, parents often wonder if their kids are getting enough physical activity. Some struggle to find ways to connect and spend time with their kids. Playing ball offers a low-tech, highly motivating, and inexpensive way for parents to foster skills while they connect with their kids. Many people may be surprised at the broad array of skills which can be supported through ball play. In fact, most skills which provide the basis for not only motor skills, but also later academic function can be developed through various types of ball play.
Simple decisions about what type of ball one uses, where to place a target, or whether to use a racket, will determine which skills are being practiced during play. By spending a few moments thinking about what skills your child needs to work on, you can easily structure games to develop those skills. The list of skills that can be targeted is long and it includes but is not limited to: eye-hand coordination, eye-foot coordination, trunk/core strength, shoulder stability, arm strength, balance, bilateral coordination (using the two sides of the body together), turn taking, sequencing, attention, motor planning and rhythmicity. With a few inexpensive materials and some forethought, parents can set up play experiences that build skills while they have fun with their kids.
Here are some tips to ensure that things stay fun for everyone.
- Always structure for success–if you begin tossing a ball with your child and she misses more than 75% of your throws, she will soon become frustrated and want to stop. To make throwing and catching easier, move closer, throw more softly, and aim right at her hands.
- Give verbal and visual cues such as, “Hands up!” (be sure to demonstrate) or “Get ready!”
- Consider the type of ball you are using. When playing catch, use a ball that will be easy for the child to catch. If the ball is consistently “slipping through” your child’s hands, try a slightly larger ball. However, just because a ball is larger, it may not be easier to use. For example, beach balls are often large, but may be too light for some children and that may make the task harder. A ball with some weight to it could increase success by giving the child’s muscles and joints more feedback.
- Grade the activity (meaning adjust to make it easier or harder as needed). You can adjust the size of the target, distance to the target, or type of ball you use. In some cases, you will be the target!
- To build skills, children need repetition and practice. They need to feel that they are competent, but also need enough challenge to be engaged. Different ball activities work on similar skills in slightly different ways, so you will never get bored!
Ball play can be used to develop skills that support development of more complex or abstract skills like attention, which can be developed using simple games such as catch. The key is to start small and be consistent. So if your child is very inattentive, begin by setting up a task you know she can do with ease, then see if she can do it just twice. So you might stand very close to her, use a fairly large ball that is not too heavy, so you know she will be able to catch it and then maybe count as you throw it to her and she catches it. Once you do twice, praise her success and stop. Gradually, move up to doing three. You may need to give her an incentive, such as, “Let’s do it three times and then go down the slide!” So if you are only able to get her to attend long enough to throw it back and forth 3 times, just stay with that simple task and practice it each time you play. Gradually, as her ability to attend improves, you will be able to increase the number of repetitions.
Another approach to improving attention using ball play would be to use bounce and catch. This is a good approach for a child who can already bounce and catch a ball with ease. Stand opposite the child, each of you holding the same type of ball. Try to bounce and catch your own ball at the same time so the sound of the two balls hitting the floor is one sound. The child may need to be reminded to listen for the sound of the bounce and see what each of you can do to synchronize the tempo so that there is only one sound. It may take practice, but as the child focuses in on listening for that sound, the ability to synchronize will improve and so will attention. This activity gives the child a very specific and discreet attention task. Once the child can do it, the challenge can be increased by changing the tempo and having the child match it. Each time the child matches the tempo, speed it up or slow it down slightly to extend the activity gradually. This will require increasing periods of attention from the child. With practice it will improve!
Learning to write is another complex skill which can be supported through ball play. Writing depends on the ability to control the eyes and integrate visual input with skilled fine motor output (the hands). Both ocular control and fine motor manipulative skills depend on having strong core muscles, like the trunk of a tree supporting its branches. To truly be a functional writer, these skills must become automatic so that the child does not have to think about how to form letters as he writes. This is called fluency and it is essential for a successful academic career.
Ball play is low-tech and low cost. It offers parents opportunities to spend time with their children while supporting development of foundational skills. All you need to do is get out there and give it a try. The information in the table will help you decide where you should begin. Just remember the most important thing of all–have fun.