It's no wonder that the phrase "having a ball" is a metaphor for fun. Playing with balls is one of the easiest, most enjoyable and enriching experiences we can give our children, right from the earliest age.
A major way in which children gain the skills they need is through play and you can help them by not only giving them the right toys but by joining in at play time. Ball games are a great way to get mums and dads involved with their toddler's play and are fun no matter what your age.
How ball-play helps kids
For such a simple object a ball has multiple benefits across different areas of development. Ball play helps young toddlers learn to control something other than their own bodies, balls help hand-eye coordination and promote the acquisition of fine motor skills. Kicking and dribbling a ball can help gross motor skills and learning to pass a ball while playing with a family-member or friend is important in helping children learn to move from parallel play (playing beside other children) to collaborative play (playing with others).
Apart from the physical benefits of play it's the opportunity for parents to connect with their little one that is also vital.
Dr Ginni Mansberg is a GP, author and resident doctor on Channel 7's Sunrise program. For her, playing with a ball is not so much about the skills it might help build but instead is more about the vital role of play.
"If you have big plans for your child to become a professional tennis player who can support you in your old age, then by all means get that fuzzy green ball into their hands as soon as possible," she jokes.
"For most of us though, it's actually all about play."
Dr Ginni explains that the process of playing with a ball with mum or dad in a happy, safe environment is what really counts. "It allows young children to develop their creativity. While they're playing they're asking, 'What are all the things I can do with the ball?'," she says. "They find out what happens if they drop it, if they roll it, if they throw it. All of this is teaching them to be creative."
However, what she stresses above all else is the need for unstructured play.
"As parents, we put too much pressure on ourselves and we can end up becoming too dogmatic about what constitutes effective play. What really matters is giving our kids the chance to interact with us in a free-form, learning environment."
Getting started with ball play
Younger toddlers won't be able to throw and catch a ball right away, but you can begin by rolling the ball to each other. Choose balls with bright colours to capture your child's interest and a ball with a bell or other sound-maker inside can also help keep them engaged. The easiest way to begin is by sitting close to your child facing each other then simply roll the ball along the ground to each other. This helps toddlers learn to track the movement of the ball, something they'll need to do in order to master catching the ball.
MIX IT UP: Once the rolling game has started to get boring try this idea to make it more interesting. Take a cardboard box and cut holes along the edge that are big enough to fit the ball through. Now turn it upside down and encourage your child to roll the ball into the holes.
By the age of around 18 months most toddlers will be able to use their whole arm to throw the ball, but catching it takes a little longer. Start by encouraging them to throw the ball into a basket or tub. Place it close to make it simple, then as they become adept move it further away to increase the challenge and the opportunity to develop their skills. Remember to praise their efforts as much as the results.
MIX IT UP: If the thrill of throwing the ball into a basket is beginning to wane, enliven it by adding the element of knocking things down. Plastic cups in a row or even stacked into a small pyramid are great for this and the excitement of watching them scatter is sure to entertain your toddler.
The importance of outdoor play
Experts agree that playing outside is vitally important for a child's development and something that in our modern society we often have fewer opportunities to do. Taking a ball to a local park is a great way to get much-needed outdoor time and it's also an opportunity for your toddler to interact with other children their age, even if they're still not ready to play with them they can benefit from playing alongside them, thus building their social skills.
By getting outside to a park with a ball you'll also be giving your toddler health benefits: you'll be helping your toddler's immune system and also providing the sunshine they need to produce vitamin D. Furthermore, outdoor play has been shown to reduce irritability in toddlers so next time your little one is tetchy, load up the pram with their favourite ball and head to the local park.
Aptamil Toddler have not influenced the content of this article.