Did you know the simple act of rolling a ball with your baby can encourage a host of important developmental skills?
Once your baby is able to sit independently when placed on the floor, she will be ready to start learning how to roll a ball back and forth with her favorite person: YOU!
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Here’s why rolling a ball is so good for your baby, plus learn how to actually do it so you can further his or her development:
1. Rolling a ball helps develop her social-communication skills.
Back-and-forth ball rolling is often one of the first activities pediatric therapists will work on when treating young kids with difficulties related to communication and/or joint attention (which is basically the ability to share attention with another person on the same object or event). Rolling a ball back and forth with your baby facilitates the beginning skills needed to teach the back-and-forth dynamics of conversation — my turn, your turn, my turn, your turn. Ball rolling is also a great way to facilitate eye contact, which is such a huge part of social interaction and communication. And because eye contact can be very difficult for children, say, on the autism spectrum, rolling a ball with them is a really easy way to begin to encourage it.
Here’s how you can teach your child to learn to make eye contact when rolling a ball with her:
Start out by sitting in front of your sitting baby and saying, “Ready, set, go!” You can tap the ball on the ground with each word you say, as you say it, for added emphasis and attention to the ball. (I like using a ball with some sort of rattle in it, like the OBall, in order to gain baby’s attention). Then roll the ball to her. Once she gets her hands on the ball, she may or may not attempt to roll/fling the ball back to you. That’s fine. She’s just learning! You may have to just go get the ball yourself when you’re starting out. Once you get the ball back, do it again: “Ready, set, go!” (tapping the ball on the ground with each word) and roll the ball to her. Do this several times until you can tell that she’s gotten the hang of your little routine.
Once it seems like she knows what to expect during this roll-the-ball game, start out just like normal except, this time, pause for a few seconds before you say, “Go!” So you will say, “Ready, set, (pause for 3 or so seconds, which will feel like an eternity), go!” During that pause, your baby may look at you as if to say, Hey, roll the ball to me already! That’s awesome! If not, that’s okay. Continue with the game. “Ready, set, (pause for a few seconds)…” Wait for her to make eye contact, even if it is brief or barely there and then, once she does, roll that ball to her! Yay! She did it! She looked at you to communicate that she was paying attention and was ready and wanted the ball and now…now she got it! Praise her and smile at her and you can even say something like, “Good looking!” She’s onto you.
Keep up your roll-the-ball game and, before you know it, your little one will be anticipating your trick and will establish eye contact with you as soon as she hears or sees you start to say, “Ready, set…” Woohoo! She has now begun developing one of the most basic and POWERFUL tools needed for social and communication skills — eye contact in the context of social communication. That’s awesome.
Ball rolling is also often used by pediatric therapists (particularly speech therapists) to encourage children to make the /g/ sound, as in “Ready, set, GO!” To do this, follow the same routine as described above when working on eye contact. However, instead of simply waiting for your little one to look at you in order to initiate the ball roll, now wait until she makes a sound. ANY sound. The fact that she is vocalizing in response to your initiation is a big first step. As you play your ball rolling game, continue to pause and hold out until your little one makes a sound to initiate the roll and, gradually over time, hold out until she makes a sound that approximates the /g/ sound. As soon as she makes that sound, roll the ball to her! And once she can do that, hold out until she makes a sound that approximates “go”. It sounds like a lot of work, but you many find that this strategy actually comes naturally to you and it is so exciting and AMAZING when you hear your little one utter a sound that sounds like “go” for the first time in an effort to get you to give her that coveted ball!
2. Rolling a ball helps develop his gross motor skills.
“Gross motor” is simply a fancy way of referring to the large muscle groups of the body. So gross motor skills are basically those that involve the large muscle groups of the body such as the trunk, arms, and legs. You may notice that, as you roll the ball to your baby, it doesn’t always go right to him. It may roll to him and then bounce off his leg so it’s sitting a few inches away. Or it may roll to his side. Or behind him. It’s fine to make sure the ball goes right to him when you’re starting out but, actually, it’s even better if it doesn’t go right to him. If the ball is sitting a few inches away from him, this will force him to shift his weight forward and/or to the side as he reaches for the ball while also trying to maintain his balance. Provide him some protection if needed, such as some pillows or your hands hovering around him just in case he reaches farther than hisr balance can sustain. But definitely give him the chance to challenge himself and his emerging sense of balance.
Leaning over to get the ball can be a tough one starting out, but it is hugely important! You know why? Because, before babies learn to crawl, they have to become comfortable transitioning into a hands and knees position (referred to as “quadruped”). Sometimes they do this simply by pushing up from their belly onto their hands and knees (that’s hard work!). But babies also learn to get into quadruped by starting in a sitting position and then reaching forward and to the side as they place their hands on the floor, shift their weight onto their hands and, boom!, transition onto their hands and knees. Babies practice this very skill when they cautiously reach forward and test their limits in order to retrieve a ball as they play with you (as seen in the video shown later in this post). So as you play ball with your baby and provide him opportunities to lean away from his center of balance while sitting, you are not only challenging his balance but also his ability to learn to transition into a pre-crawling position. Sweet!
3. Rolling a ball with your baby helps develop her reaching skills, which is an important foundation to her fine motor skills.
Gross motor and reaching skills often develop hand-in-hand in babies. Around six or seven months or so, as babies are able to sit without using their hands for balance, they discover that they can now reach for things that used to be too high for them when they were stuck laying on the ground. As their balance improves, so does their ability to reach for objects that are farther in front of them, to the side of them, and above them. Watch out world! Once your baby becomes comfortable in sitting, give her the chance to reach out for the ball when it doesn’t go right to her. This will challenge her gross motor/balance skills (as mentioned in the previous point) while also giving her a chance to exercise her emerging reaching skills — two for the price of one!
Don’t forget that your baby will also be using her ever-developing visual skills as she prepares to practice her reaching skills. She will need to watch the ball roll toward her (visual tracking), determine how far away it is once it stops and how far she needs to reach to obtain the ball (depth perception), and then establish eye contact as she looks back at you in order to roll the ball in the correct direction (joint attention).
There is just so much great developmental practice that goes on during a simple game of ball rolling, and I bet you never even realized it!
Do you want to see all of this in action? Yes? Good. I’ve got a video here just for you. Listen to the commentary and watch closely to see all of the previously described developmental elements in action. This video was taken when my oldest son was just learning to sit without support at 7 1/2 months old. Check it out:
Did you see how that pause during Ready…Set…………..Go! feels like FOREVER? But we got the eye contact AND the vocalization! Yay social-communication skills! And did you see how, after baby had become more comfortable in sitting (just two weeks later), he was able to shift his weight forward and bear weight on one hand (way to go, gross motor!) while then reaching out to grasp the ball (hoo-ray reaching skills!)? And can you see how a baby could then use that position to learn how to transition from sitting to quadruped? It’s all coming together now, right?
If you have a baby who is able to sit or who will soon be learning how to sit, get ready to play ball with them! If you babysit or work in a day care or volunteer in a church nursery filled with sitting and crawling babies, play ball with them, too! And if you don’t have a baby yet but are expecting one at some point in the future…yep, you guessed it…pin this post and remember to play ball with your baby once he or she is able to sit.
I’ll give you one more tip about teaching babies to sit. Okay fine. Two tips. Just because I’m feeling generous.
First: Don’t “teach” your baby to sit by placing him or her in a Bumbo. It doesn’t actually teach babies to sit. And it can be dangerous. And it’s just plain not a good idea. Read more about what the deal is with Bumbo Seats and why to avoid them by clicking here, plus learn five non-Bumbo ways to support wobbly sitters in this post.
Second: Learn how to help your baby become a steady, confident, functional sitter by reading this post, written by a pediatric physical therapist whose goal is to empower parents with knowledge so they can be confident in their abilities to play and engage with their babies.
Okay, and here are two more tips about ball rolling with your baby.
One: Use an Oball! There are lots of great balls out there for babies but, unlike other solid balls, the OBall is so easy for babies to learn to grasp and release due to its webbed design. Plus the Oball is soft (in case baby smashes himself in the head with it, which he most likely will) and can be put in the dishwasher for cleaning off all that slobber and grime it accumulates during timespent on the ground. I am such a fan of the OBall (especially the one with the rattle, as pictured in both the cover photo and video) that I have even included in my list of 15 Toys for Baby’s First Year. The rattle Oball can be found online here or you can get it for just a few bucks at most major stores that carry baby toys (such as Target or Wal-Mart).
Two: Try rolling a ball with your baby while he lays on his side or even when he’s in a quadruped (hands and knees) position. You can still roll a ball with your baby and elicit social-communication, gross motor, and reaching skills without actually placing him in sitting.
I hope you have a blast teaching your baby how to roll a ball with you, all while secretly supporting her development and creating new memories along the way.