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Make Mom Play Ball: Physical Education for Tots

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #94, 2010.

What to think about when designing physical education activities for toddlers
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Melissa Morgan

Good morning, toddler. Your mission is to make Mom play ball. There Mom is—busy, busy. Her eyes are stuck on the little phone screen, and her fingers are on the little ticky-tacky buttons. Push the ball—closer, closer—now—kick it! Bam! The ball hits the ticky-tacky thing, and it flies across the room. “Look, Mommy!”

Okay, maybe there’s a better way to make your parent, brother, sister, grandma or grandpa play ball with you. Let’s look at this from a grown-up’s point of view.

According to familyfitness.about.com: “In the late 1970s, about 5% of children between 2 and 5 years old were overweight. Recently, that figure has climbed to nearly 14%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Your toddler just wants to play, but there is so much that big people need to do and so little time to get it done. Parents might have other concerns, too. What if my child gets hurt? What if I get hurt? (Use your own best judgment, and clear your exercise program with your family doctor first.)

Both parents and children reap benefits when they become more physically active. Active play can aid in children’s mental, social and emotional development, and it can help parents deal with the stresses of parenting energetic youngsters.

No need for formal gym class, or for expensive equipment. Past generations managed to gain manual dexterity and exercise small and large muscles, often with no more equipment than a ball or jump rope.

Brisk walks can sharpen your mind, and most toddlers will discover plenty of bugs, cars, trucks, clover, and dandelions to interest them. To a young child, a walk around the block is a great adventure. Notice what interests your child, and take the opportunity to find things to talk about with your little adventurer. As your child talks, take time to listen closely. Respond in simple words that keep the conversation going.

Teach your child traditional games to play, like jacks, hopscotch, marbles and bike riding. You can call this time “gym,” and painlessly include simple lessons to improve memory skills and safety smarts. On rainy days, play active indoor video games (like Wii Active Life), dance to music together, or exercise to library video programs.

Most communities offer opportunities for preschool sports, including baseball, soccer, tumbling, and tap dancing, through county recreation departments.

What if you can’t find positive social and physical education outlets that “click” for you and your toddler, matching your family goals and values? Homeschool groups and play groups can band together, making Mom, Dad and older siblings play ball—and much more. Contact your local, state or national homeschool organization to find a local homeschool network in your area. (Search for groups at home-school.com/groups.)

Consider starting your own park day or play dates with a few friends. Parents can take turns sharing skills that they feel comfortable teaching. You don’t need to be a professional ball player—you just need to know a little more than your toddler. You already have a height advantage!

Young children need a lot of hands-on direction. Toddlers often need practice developing listening skills, and may not yet understand simple direction words, such as over, under, on, and around. They also need to learn how to wait their turn, and how to encourage others who may be smaller, weaker, or have physical or mental challenges.

Often, smaller groups of just a few kids may interact well, while a larger group can lose control, running around aimlessly. If your goal is to help your child develop physically and socially, large groups may be counterproductive, unless there are enough adults or mature teens to offer guidance and direction. However, getting together with other families, with adult supervision, can be a positive influence on your youngster.

You can also take turns at different houses and park locations, sharing equipment and giving children varied experiences. Consider planning simple play date activities such as running through the sprinkler, relay races, homemade obstacle courses with cardboard box tunnels, and backyard scavenger hunts. For item ideas for object hunts, check out books from the library, such as “I Spy” books or the “High Five” Highlights for Children (for age two to six) magazine series.

Find inexpensive sporting equipment at garage sales or resale shops such as thrift stores and Play It Again Sports. However, use your own judgment regarding safety. Both old and new equipment carries risk, especially with small children involved. Remember Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Put safety first, and purchase well made, age-appropriate items such as approved helmets, knee pads, stable trikes, mini-kick scooters, plastic wiffle balls and fat, lightweight bats. Easy-to-catch, large, soft rubber balls with knobby surfaces, or inflatable beach balls make learning to catch “ouchie”-free. The tricky part is providing just enough supervision and safety, while allowing room for making mistakes, learning, and growing.

Search for the rules for easy group action games, such as Red Light/Green Light and Doggy, Doggy, at www.gameskidsplay.net/games/xtra_games.htm. Consider games that emphasize cooperation, such as playing Parachute Popcorn. If you don’t have a parachute, a sheet and small lightweight (plastic or foam) balls will do. You should have at least one ball per child. All ages can play this game, but try and balance the heights holding the sheet, with smaller children evenly interspaced with taller folks. Once every person is holding the sheet, in a circle, place the balls in the center of the sheet and “pop” the balls together. The goal is to see how long you can keep the balls popping, without any flying out! This helps kids learn to work together as a team; it is harder than it sounds.

Don’t forget to include rest after your tot makes you play ball. A quiet, wind-down time is important for both of you. Follow your toddler’s lead—have fun!

Melissa L. Morgan is the co-author of Educational Travel on a Shoestring and Homeschooling on a Shoestring. With her husband, Hugh, she has homeschooled their three children from birth, taking advantage of many educational opportunities in the real world. She invites you to visit her website at www.eaglesnesthome.com.

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