22 Jan, 2014

Nursery Equipment: Ball Skills – Catch!

28 May 2012 written by Dr Lala Manners published by Nursery World

Throwing, catching, kicking and batting are essential physical skills with social pluses, says Lala Manners.

Children love playing with balls, and their urge to engage with a round, moving object within a group is visceral and generic to all children around the world.

Maybe the appeal of ball play lies in the combination of intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships: intrapersonal in that they feel a sense of achievement and joy acquiring new skills; interpersonal in that they are afforded the opportunity to engage with others.

It is easy to forget that despite the increasingly hi-tech, solitary nature of some children’s experiences, what makes them happy is often simple, accessible physical activities that require minimal equipment and the time and space to acquire, rehearse and refine skills in a group setting.

The emergence of identity is intricately linked to the acquisition of physical skills. Competence begets independence and choice. Obviously, some children will be more naturally interested and talented, but all should have maximum opportunities to acquire basic ball skills so they may interact with others with confidence and competence.

All the most successful sportspeople who engage in ball games behave as though the ball is an extension of their bodies. They are completely at ease and comfortable manipulating sports equipment. Whether catching or kicking, throwing or batting/striking, they make it look effortless.

This not only highlights physical competencies, but also life skills including perseverance, generosity, acceptance of limitations, decision-making, teamwork, success and failure. The physical benefits – overall body strength and organ function -are significant, but we must not forget the wider implications of the behaviours that relate to skill acquisition.


Generally, children under two have not yet developed the skilled hand-eye co-ordination for throwing, catching or batting, or the foot-eye co-ordination for effective kicking. However, careful preparation for acquiring these skills does pay dividends later.

Preparation cannot start too early – and it starts with young children (up to two years) becoming familiar with the equipment.


Using a beach ball or indoor squashy volley ball – as long as it is soft:

  • sit the child on the ball, hold hands and gently sway side to side – this encourages balancing ability and core body strength
  • hold the child under the armpits and bounce up and down – this will also highlight balance and strength as they push up from the floor
  • hold the child’s hands and encourage them to stand on the ball, then take one foot off the ball at a time – this will focus on leg strength and balance.

Handling the equipment is also very important at this early stage:

  • Pat the ball together with flat hands, very fast then very slow
  • Rub the ball all over with both hands
  • Use different parts of your hands to make different sounds
  • Pick up the ball with both hands – then squeeze it very hard.

Eye skills will emerge as a critical component of ball skill acquisition:

  • Hold the ball in the air and ask the child to try to touch it
  • Move the ball from side to side, then up and down, so the child is tracking the ball – you may do this at different speeds.


Between the ages of two and five children will begin to acquire specific ball skills – throwing, catching, kicking, batting/striking. Often owing to lack of space and equipment or safety issues, these skills are not rehearsed and refined on a regular basis in many settings. By using accessible, manageable, everyday equipment these issues may be circumvented. There are plenty of balls on the market (see box), but rolled up socks, tights or paper balls are a good substitute.

You should aim to provide children with ten to 15 minutes of the following activities – and always afford some time for the children to explore the apparatus themselves. Observe their ideas closely and note any possibilities you could use within a future session. You should also encourage parents to repeat these activities with their children.


Throwing is a skill that emerges at a very young age and develops in the following stages:

  • over and down (one hand – think high chairs and food)
  • two-handed underhand
  • one-handed underhand
  • one-handed overhand.

Encourage two-handed underhand throwing in the early stages, before moving on to throwing objects up in the air and watching them drop. The next stage is to get children to aim at something, such as a chair or box. Start close to the target, then lengthen the distance.


Of all the ball skills children will master catching is probably the most challenging. Many will arrive in settings having had very negative or painful experiences of trying to develop the skills, and may even be quite frightened of a ball being thrown at them. It is vitally important to return to the two basic elements of acquiring this skill: tracking skills, and stopping a moving object.

Tracking: You can use your hands to encourage tracking ability. Ask them to sit in a circle then, for each child, ask them to touch your hand every time as you move it quite fast up and down, followed by side to side.

Stopping a moving object: Roll a beach ball to each child in a circle and ask them to stop it and roll it back. Make this more challenging by asking them to lie on their tummies or kneel, or stop the ball with their feet

Catching: Start by throwing the equipment into children’s laps – they will try to catch it anyway. Tell them exactly when you are going to throw so they can begin to anticipate when to catch. Progress to standing. Throw the ball to each child – keep standing fairly close – and encourage them to throw it back to you.


Kicking can be difficult to master as it requires a significant level of balance and co-ordination. Very young children may begin by being swung gently between someone’s legs and allowing their feet to connect with a soft object. They will then progress to holding on with one hand while they kick with their preferred leg.

In many settings practising this will be challenging due to space and safety concerns, so again you could use socks, tights or paper bags; none carry any risk factors and all may be used effectively in any setting.

To develop the skill:

  • Make a mini slalom course and ask the children to dribble the equipment around the obstacles – this is challenging as both feet must be used
  • Create a goal or target that must be aimed at
  • Introduce the concept of a ‘team’ – how many balls can each group get into the goal.


Some children will do this quite independently from around two years and will demonstrate a natural aptitude, but again, this can be sometimes be a difficult skill, so use a partially inflated balloon instead of a ball if you lack space or are concerned about the children’s safety.

To develop the skill:

  • Ask the children to walk on their knees and keep the balls moving as close to the floor as possible with their hands
  • While still on their knees, ask them to see how high they can hit the balls
  • You can introduce bats (of rolled up newspaper tied with tape if necessary) and repeat the above tasks
  • Then bat the equipment around the floor. It is essential the children remain on their knees unless you have ample space and adequate support – this is a ball skill where the risk factor can be reasonably high.

On The Ball

Many of the main early years suppliers offer a wide range of balls, in varying sizes and materials. These include:

Asco Educational’s SP range of balls, which come in various sizes up to 16cm (£32.55 for five),

Fabric Ball Rainbow (£12.49) from Reflections on Learning.

Beach Ball 36, (91cm, £1.75,), Bell Ball (15cm, £4.99), Fuzz Balls in soft fuzzy-felt (£11.95 for three), and Groove Balls, made from foam rubber and available in 9cm, 12cm, 16cm and 20cm (from £11.95 for six) are all available from TTS Group.

Wesco’s range includes Perforated Balls (£3.60 for six), Softball Balls in thick foam (£10.70 for six) and Juggling Balls (£12.20 for three). Wesco offers Large Kit Beginner’s Balls (£52 for eight or £147.90 for 24).

TTS’s Bag ‘O’ Balls (£42.95) includes 18 balls of varying shapes and sizes with a ball net.

If you have limited space or have concerns about safety, choose Hope Education’s Large Willow Balls as they are light (£16.95 for two).


Dr Lala Manners is a physical development expert and trainer

Published by Nursery World and available to subscribers in their extensive archive of past publications.