3 balls on carpet

Balls: An Ideal Toy for Every Stage of Development

Babies and kids really need very few physical things. I always hesitate when asked what products someone “should” buy for their children, especially when it comes to toys. However, there is a toy that appeals to young babies and teenagers alike. It seems simple because it is. If someone is looking for a toy to purchase, regardless of the age, a ball is a safe bet. 

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Balls for Young Infants

Even the youngest babies observe their environment. They watch curtains flutter or tree branches sway. Babies see their families talk, play, and work. Ambient sounds entertain their ears while their eyes track movements.

All that babies really need are kind and loving people in their lives. If we wanted to add an object, though, a ball encourages natural development. Watching it roll or bounce captivates their attention. At age 2 months, they’ll start to track moving objects from one side to another. At around 5 months, they may start to reach for balls and notice what happens if grabbed or pushed. 

With this in mind, ideal balls for babies may have different textures to allow them to explore more with their hands. If the ball can be grabbed, it’s even more useful. Here, I think of balls like the Oball. My family used one similar to this:

Bright Starts Oball available on Amazon (affiliate link)

Toddlers and Balls

It’s inevitable. Toddlers throw things. Of course, we adults cannot let them throw everything they grab. (Ahem, dishes). Ideally, we redirect them to throw things designed to be tossed around. Enter the magic of balls. We can give children plenty of opportunities to throw appropriate things.

Before throwing, many babies will roll a ball. Its the natural next step after the cause-and-effect exploration that comes with grabbing and pushing in infancy. If left to their own devices with space and freedom to play with a ball, many babies will start to roll the ball, then throw it. By age 2 years, many kids throw a ball overhand. At this age, they may begin to kick balls as well.

Balls for Preschool-aged Children

The natural progression of throwing balls leads to catching. By age 3 or 4, many kids try to catch balls (usually with both hands in a hugging motion at first). Physical gross motor skills continue to develop. At well child appointments, pediatricians may ask whether a child throws and catches. These “milestones” signify more than just throwing and catching. We also think about strength, coordination, play engagement, and ability to bring their hands towards the center of their bodies.

Usually, there’s no need for strict instruction or drills. We adults can simply follow a child’s lead when it comes to playtime. That being said, taking this playtime outdoors has many benefits. Throwing a ball outside is great for both motor skills and eyesight.

At these preschool ages, though, social development starts to be more obvious and important. Playing with balls can lead to taking turns and sharing. Tossing a ball back and forth can lead to taking turns in other areas too.

Also, some preschoolers are introduced to organized sports. In this case, the ball can be an entry point to another world.

For casual multipurpose use, we’ve gotten a lot of use out of a playground ball, similar to the one pictured below. It’s a good size for “hugging catches,” and has enough bounce for satisfying play on grass or courts.

Inflatable playground ball (affiliate link)

Balls for Ages 6 and Older

When it comes to toys and balls for older children, there’s an appeal for everyone from school-aged children to adolescents (and adults). Motor skills continue to develop and be fine tuned. Throwing becomes more precise. Catching progresses to one-handed catches, further distances, and different types of balls.

Ball Play for Learning About Persistence

We know that even adult athletes work to improve their techniques. What does that have to do with children, though? It’s the idea of setting a goal, then working and practicing towards that goal. It’s true that many other activities can teach children the importance of long-term perseverance. (Music, gardening, robot-building, and dance all come to mind). Playing a ball-focused sport is just another accessible option.

Balls for Relationship-Building

In the pre-teen and teen years, friend relationships become more important. (This is in comparison to nuclear family relationships, which are also still important). Again, sports are an entryway to safely spending time with people outside one’s own family. Many of us can remember a time when conversation with someone may not have come easily, but we were able to pass a ball back and forth. Familiarity can grow into friendship.

Playing catch or something similar is also a great option for teens and parents. Many experts suggest talking with teens in low-pressure settings. This could be side by side in the car as a parent drives, during a movie or TV show at home, or on a walk or a hike. I’d offer kicking or passing a ball back and forth to each other as another option. The obvious focus is elsewhere (driving, the environment when walking, the ball itself), so it takes the pressure off the Big Life Topics that parents and teens need to discuss.

Connecting Generations and Communities

Despite plenty of criticism, sports do unite people. This applies to both spectators and athletes. Community and relationships are crucial to social and emotional development. So, whether it’s a grandparent rolling a ball in front of a 3-month-old or watching the World Cup, balls are a tool for creating connection and community. From birth until old age, this simple round object gently encourages development and brings people closer together.

Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.

Disclaimer: This post is for information only. No medical advice. See full disclosure here.

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