Scarves, Soccer, and Stories: Promoting Visual Tracking

First, the tallest boy in your class gets called. Next it's that small but lightening-fast girl who sits behind you. And after her it's your best friend, who has five older brothers and is pretty smooth with a soccer ball. One by one, you hear everyone's name being called. You quietly shift from one foot to the other, hoping, praying, that you won't be: The. Last. One. Picked.

Ring a bell? It does for me. And one of the main reasons I wasn't too popular on the elementary school soccer field was my propensity to duck-and-cover whenever the ball came anywhere near me. I was much more interested in protecting my person than executing that perfect David Beckham-esque save.

The reason children are often afraid of an approaching ball is that their visual skills aren’t yet fully developed. The ability to distinguish an object from its surroundings (figure-ground perception) fully matures between the ages of 8 and 12, and depth perception (judging distance in relation to oneself) isn’t mature until about age 12. And although even infants are able to visually track slow-moving objects, it isn’t until around 12 years old that children can make fast and accurate judgments about quickly moving objects like, say, a soccer ball whizzing toward their face.

Although you can’t rush the development of your child’s visual tracking skills, you can provide opportunities for him to engage in activities that strengthen them. Even if you hold no aspirations of raising the world's next Pelé, it's still beneficial to focus on these skills as they are vital to the less sporty, but all-important pursuit of reading. An easy, fun way to get your child going is with a game of scarf catch, exactly like regular catch except the ball is replaced with a brightly colored light-weight scarf. The scarf’s color makes it easy to see, and because scarves float rather than fly, your child will have a greater chance to track it.

A preschool aged child may (unintentionally) catch it as often on his face or head as he does with his hands. Make a game of discovering how many different body parts (head, elbow, foot, knee) he can use to catch the scarf. If your child is a bit older (kindergarten aged and up) he will enjoy finding out how many times he can clap or turn around before the scarf reaches him.

Once a child has achieved lots of success with a scarf, invite him to practice throwing and catching a small, brightly colored beach ball. Starting with these fun, kid-friendly objects ensures success. And when the time comes for him to track words across a page, not to mention a soccer ball hurtling at lightspeed toward his head, he’ll have the visual tracking skills he needs!

- Rae Pica

Rae Pica is a children’s physical activity specialist and the author of A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child (Da Capo Press, 2006) and Great Games for Young Children (Gryphon House, 2006). She has shared her expertise with such clients as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Centers for Disease Control, Gymboree Play & Music, and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports. She is also co-creator and host of "Body, Mind and Child," a radio program in which she interviews experts in the fields of early childhood education, child development, the neurosciences, and more. Listen at www.bodymindandchild.com.

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