Have a Ball

Ball Games to Play With Your Baby or Toddler

Little girl with colorful plastic toy balls

Anne Clark / E+ / Getty Images

All children can benefit from (and will likely enjoy) rolling, catching, kicking, dribbling, and tossing a ball. Playing with balls is an inexpensive, readily available, and versatile activity that improves kids' motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and timing, which are important parts of the developmental progression of toddlers. The skills children develop by learning to play with balls will also be key once they graduate to collaborative and competitive play.

What Your Child Learns

Balls are must-have toys and the benefits of playing with balls are immense. You can introduce them to your baby very early on because they immediately strengthen motor skills and familiarize little ones with their environment. Early on, babies gravitate toward things that roll. Your infant will be fascinated by a ball's continuous movement. Balls allow children to feel in control of something other than their own movements.

Balls help build balance skills and allow little ones to practice transferring an object from one hand to the other.

Rolling a ball back and forth is also a way to build a social bond between two people (you and your baby, or your baby and a sibling or playmate). This turn-taking game is also an introduction to the concept of cause and effect.

Toddlers will enjoy discovering a ball's abilities and the different effects of bouncing, rolling, tossing, and kicking it. A ball will remain an entertaining toy as your child transitions from independent play and parallel play to collaborative play, which is vital in developing social skills, such as learning how to share, how to follow rules, and how to negotiate.

Choosing the Right Ball

You have a wide variety of choices for balls, with variations in size, texture, weight, and firmness. Large balls will take two hands to throw, which is an entirely different skill than throwing a small tennis ball with one hand. Give your toddler the opportunity to practice with both.

Ball Safety

All balls for babies and toddlers should be large enough that they are not a choking hazard. Generally, this means the ball should have a diameter of at least 1.75 inches—you can use a toilet paper roll insert as a guide—so that your child can't accidentally swallow it.

The best balls for toddlers overall may be Wiffle balls because they are lightweight and have holes that make them easy for toddlers to handle. They are also less likely to cause injury or damage.

For indoor use, you may want to pick Wiffle balls or small, soft balls that are less likely to break anything. Beach balls can also be a fun alternative. Keep large and/or heavy balls outdoors, or use them inside only when you're able to closely supervise the activity.

Rules for Play

Set ground rules about throwing balls, indoors or out, and enforce them. You should also set rules about not throwing balls at other people except when they are prepared to catch them. Teach your child that balls should not be used as a weapon and that balls thrown in the house can cause damage.

Any games that you play with a ball will also have rules that are appropriate for the age of the child. A toddler may be too young to understand rules other than what is needed for safety, so keep their games simple (and breakable items far away).

Ball Games

There are endless options for ways to play with a ball. You and your toddler might come up with your own games, too. However, here are some classic options to start out with.

Roll the Ball

This classic, simple ball game is a perfect place to start. Sit on the floor opposite your toddler and roll the ball back and forth to each other. To keep the ball contained, you can sit with your legs open in a V shape and touch your toes with each other. Then, slowly pass the ball to each other. Once you get the hang of it, you can start backing up to make aiming more of a challenge. You can also vary the game by rolling the ball slower or faster.

Bounce the Ball

Select one or more bouncy balls and pick a safe location for bouncing. Then, take turns bouncing the ball back and forth to each other or to yourself. Once you've got this skill mastered, you can try simultaneously bouncing two balls back and forth. This activity tends to be fun even if the balls don't always get caught.

Bowl the Ball

Set up a makeshift bowling alley in your yard or living room. Stand up empty water bottles or small toys in a formation at the end of a designated "lane." Choose items that will safely fall over if they are knocked into by a ball. Then, take turns rolling the ball down the lane into the "bowling pins." See how many you can knock over and/or how many tries it takes to knock them all down.

A variation on this game is to set up a box or bin on its side and attempt to roll the ball into it. You can progressively start from farther and farther away to add challenge.

Toss the Ball

Another classic option is to simply toss a ball back and forth. This game develops your child's reflexes and catching skills. Be sure to use a soft, light ball to start with. Begin very close to each other and then take steps back as they improve.

They can also practice making baskets by setting up a bin, bucket, or basket for them to toss the ball into. This activity is fun for them to play independently as well.

Ball Storage

A large box or basket kept on the floor can serve as storage and as a place to throw the balls for a fun game. Wicker baskets, laundry baskets, and plastic containers all work well. Make sure the container isn't deep enough that toddlers could fall in when they are trying to retrieve their toys.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Muentener P, Herrig E, Schulz L. The Efficiency of Infants' Exploratory Play Is Related to Longer-Term Cognitive Development. Front Psychol. 2018;9:635.  doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00635

  2. KidsHealth from Nemours. Smart toys for every age.

  3. Neofotistos A, Cowles N, Sharma R. Choking Hazards: Are Current Product Testing Methods for Small Parts Adequate?Int J Pediatr. 2017;2017:4705618. doi:10.1155/2017/4705618

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Creating rules.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.