Toddlers, ball skills and routines based intervention

In family centered and routines based approaches to EI the family plays an important role in selecting the tasks they would like their child to master.  This has many advantages but difficulties may arise when the parent selected goals that do not match the infant or toddlers's motivation or interests. If a toddler will only eat food that can be picked up with the fingers and refuses to take food off a spoon, there may be  a conflict of interests.

Another difficulty arises when the parents want the toddler to master a task that is beyond the their current abilities. If a toddler is not very interested in playing with a ball and parents see throwing and catching a ball as an important skill for participation in family activities. It then falls to the therapist  help the parents to step back a bit and figure out ways to interest the child in playing with balls that do not involve the difficult task of catching and throwing. 

Ball skills are acquired over many months. As soon as typically developing infants are able to sit independently they take a keen interest in the attributes and behavior of balls: when balls roll across the floor, they follow a straight path unless their movement is stopped, they bounce when dropped, if a ball is thrown it will bounce and then roll away.

R 10m catch ball 1.jpg

Toddlers learn to stand and throw a ball, this requires good balance. They enjoy playing skittles and throwing a ball at a target. Their ability to kick a ball improves rapidly with a bit of practice, and they quickly learn to aim towards a goal. These activities all involve the ability to select visual information from the environment as needed for planning the actions, including prediction and anticipation.

Toddler side arm throw 2.jpg    Toddler steps forward to take ball 3.jpg

Toddlers who are not keen on ball activities or whose behavior when playing with a ball is haphazard, have probably not acquired the visual, anticipation and prediction abilities needed for age appropriate ball activities. This makes balls unpredictable and difficult to control.

One way to overcome this gap in the toddler's abilities as well as to encourage an interest in ball games, is to introduce games with balls that do not involve catching and throwing, but do encourage picking up, dropping, and rolling down a slope.

It may be useful to start by having a selection of balls of of different sizes, weights and colors. The opportunity to choose a ball to play with is an easy way to give the toddler a sense of having some control over the activity.

Here are some ideas for activities 

  • Put all the ball in a box and invite the toddler and invite the toddler to unpack the box of balls
  • Pick up a ball, lift it high above your head and watch it bounce.
  • Make a slope using a mattress leaning on a sofa and let a ball run down the slope.
  • Stand behind a sofa and drop the ball over the sofa back.
  • Place several empty plastic bottles in a small circle, and drop a median sized ball on top of them so that they fall over and scatter.
  • Place two medium sized cardboard boxes one on top the other, hold a medium sized ball in both hands and use the ball as a battering ram to knock the tower over.
  • Sit on the floor with the legs apart and facing a partner. Roll medium sized ball towards the child and encourage her to stop the ball with her hands.

All these activities are contained and success is easily achieved. They are also opportunities for observing the behavior of balls and learning to predict and anticipate the movement of the ball.

Once the toddler has started to take an interest in playing with balls, take you cues for the introducing new ball activities from the child. Remember that infants learn best when they engage in self-selected or initiated actions, when they have an opportunity to explore different ways of achieving their goals, when they are driven by curiosity or a desire to achieve a particular outcome.

What about ball activities and daily routines?

One of the advantages of routines based intervention is the multiple opportunities it provides for practicing new abilities that form part of daily life. 

However, there are sone activities that need dedicated and intensive practice to promote learning. Learning to stand with support is one example. 

I would like to suggest that periods dedicated to playing with a toddler also needs to be part of the daily routine. For instance if a toddler has not yet acquired ball skills, then it is not going to happen without some dedicated training.

Playing ball games with mom, dad and siblings is part of typically developing toddlers experience: ball games are fun and that motivates people to join in the game.


Read more about task analysis, toddler abilities and  learning from experience