We can promote brain development by providing equipment that helps facilitate movement in our early childhood classrooms and/or home environments. A favorite piece of equipment that I like to use with young children is the exercise ball (a.k.a. gym balls, physio balls, stability balls, fitness balls, therapy balls or Swiss balls.) These large, colorful balls attract kids and help build neural connections in the brain. They are great for working on balance, coordination, postural control and sensory integration, which is the ability of the brain to receive, organize, interpret and use the vast amount of sensory information that enters the body and neurological system through both external and internal stimuli. Try some of the following activities and watch children line up to have their turn with the ball:
- Tummy Roll - Holding onto their legs and arms, have a child lay face down (on their stomach) on top of the ball and roll the ball back and forth. Belly laughs begin as the child rocks and rolls, enjoying the sensations produced from this movement which activates the vestibular system in the inner ear. The vestibular system takes in messages about balance and movement from the neck, eyes and body; sends the messages to the central nervous system for processing; and then helps generate muscle tone (which allows us to move smoothly and efficiently.) Rocking and rolling also provides kinesthetic and proprioceptive input—awareness of sensations that come from receptors in the muscles, joints, skin and tendons.
- Bouncy Time - Sit a child on top of the ball and hold their hands or body and gently bounce the child up and down. Sing a song or recite a nursery rhyme as you bounce the child to the rhythm. Rhythm and rhyme facilitates language and memory while bouncing enhances the respiratory system.
- Play Ball - Roll, dribble or bounce and catch the exercise ball with a child. This addresses bilateral integration, the coordination of the two sides of the body.
- Pizza Dough - Have the child lie tummy down on an activity mat or carpeted floor. With consistent pressure, roll and press the exercise ball up and down all over the child’s body. Say, “I’m rolling out the pizza dough nice and flat.” Ask, “Want me to press harder? Not so hard? More? Tell me when you want me to stop.” (Give the child the chance to be in control and to guide the activity.) Say, “It’s time to add the toppings to make you extra delicious! Here’s some pizza sauce.” Rub the child’s arms, legs and back with your hands. Continue with, “Here’s some pepperoni,” and with palm flat, press a hand on back of body in several different places. “Chopped onions would be tasty, too.” Using side of hand, move it up in and down along their body in a chopping motion. When you and the child agree that s/he’s “done,” pretend to put “the pizza” in a pretend oven.
There are so many ways to incorporate active play and movement with large sensory balls in early childhood classrooms. Children from preschool to school age will literally have a ball! What are some ways you use them in your school activities or with kids at home?