Toolkit: Playing Ball to Encourage Motor Development

As a parent concerned with helping your child reach her full potential, you may feel pressured to buy the latest educational toy or expensive equipment. But the best motivator for your child is actually you. With a little creativity, you can use things you already have around the home to help your child become active. Here are some ways to encourage your child’s motor development. The only thing you need is a ball.

Infants from birth to three months old:

  • Sit yourself on a large exercise ball, with your feet firmly on the floor. Bounce gently while cuddling your baby. This helps many fussy babies to calm down.
  • Use this same large exercise ball for 15 minutes of “tummy time.” Here’s how: Place a clean blanket or towel over the top surface of the ball. Place the ball against a large mirror or wall for stability. Place your baby in a prone position over the blanket on the ball. Encourage her to look at herself in the mirror or to look up at you while you gently speak to her. This helps her strengthen the muscles of her neck, shoulders, and arms.

Infants from three to six months old:

  • Using the same large exercise ball, continue with “tummy time.” Now your child is ready to put some weight through her forearms and to have the ball moved slowly. If you move the ball so that your baby’s head is moving forward, she must work against gravity to hold her head upright. By moving the ball backward, you make it easier for her. Find the spot that challenges her a little but doesn’t make her fearful or fussy.
  • Use the large exercise ball or a small ball to play “push the ball.” Sit on the floor with your baby and place her between your spread legs in a very supportive sitting position. With your hands over hers, gently push on the ball and roll it away. This strengthens her upper body and works on her sitting skills.

Six to twelve months old:

  • If your child is sitting independently, it’s a good time for her to learn how to roll the ball back and forth to you. Children this age generally pick up the game quickly and will use both hands to push the ball to you. This continues to strengthen the upper body and refines sitting skills.
  • With your support, sit your child on top of your large exercise ball. While you are holding onto her trunk (if she needs a lot of support) or her hips (if she only needs stability), gently and slowly roll her forward. Allow time for her to keep her head upright and then move back to the upright position. You can also roll her gently backwards, allowing time for her to orient her head upright again. These fun exercises really work on developing your child’s trunk and head control. They do this by strengthening the muscles of her abdomen, back, and neck.

One to two years old:

  • Your child is ready to work on her eye/hand coordination, so introduce the game of “catch and throw.” Start with a medium-sized soft ball, slightly deflated to make it easier to grasp (or you can use a Gertie Ball). Gently toss the ball, and encourage your child to throw it back. Children at this age generally begin by throwing the ball overhand without aiming accurately. In the beginning, encourage your child to “trap” the ball with two hands to catch it.
  • If your child has mastered walking and is starting to run, you can work on his balance by practicing kicking. Start by placing a ball next to your child’s foot and have him kick it while standing still. This will strengthen his balance on one foot and encourage him to try kicking with alternating feet. Once he has mastered this skill, he can progress to running up to the ball to kick it while moving.

Two to three years old:

  • Encourage your child to rest one foot lightly on a soft ball on the floor. Help her work on keeping her balance on one foot. As this gets easy, you can move the ball slightly as she stands on it, so that she is hardly putting any weight at all on the ball.
  • Children enjoy lying prone (on their stomachs) over a large exercise ball. Encourage your child to roll forward with your support. Have him place both his hands on the floor while lying on the ball. This encourages upper body strength and overall balance. He can even hold this position with one hand and complete a floor puzzle with the other hand. At first, you will need to support your child on the ball. But gradually you can reduce the support until he can do it by himself.

Three to four years old:

  • Play catching and throwing games together now to develop more accuracy in your child. Larger balls are easier and you can gradually progress to playing with smaller balls with more distance between the catcher and thrower.
  • Have your child lie on his back on the floor or outside on the grass. Place his feet up in the air. Throw a large ball to him and have him kick the ball back to you with his two feet. This helps develop strength and coordination in his legs.
  • Set up a game of bowling. Place standing items such as pins or plush animals grouped together on the floor. Encourage your child to roll the ball to knock down the items.

Four to five years old:

  • At this age, children enjoy large balls that have a handle they can hold while sitting and hopping on the ball.
  • Play games with soft, foam balls such as indoor soccer, catch, or bowling.
  • Introduce T-ball by placing a ball on a cone or other stabile surface and encourage your child to practice batting the ball.

General adaptations:

  • Replace the ball with a large balloon to work on batting, throwing, catching, and kicking. The balloon moves slower than a ball and allows your child more time to react and plan his next move. Be sure to always supervise your child when playing with balloons. They can pop (which can be frightening) and pose a choking hazard.
  • If your child is showing signs of fatigue, let him take a rest and try reducing the physical demand on the child during the activity. Offer more physical support or reduce the length of time of the activity.