Some kids can pedal a trike as soon as they can walk, while other healthy 4-year-olds just can't get the hang of it. One 3-year-old may kick a ball like a little old lady, while another seems destined for ESPN highlights. There's a tremendously wide range of normal when it comes to physical agility, and few kids master the many components of coordination -- including balance, hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, and depth perception -- at the same time.
Most children seem klutzy at some point. But experts say it's all too easy to label normal developmental blips as clumsiness. That might lead you to unwittingly steer your child away from the physical play she needs in order to practice her motor skills. Kids themselves become self-conscious as they develop a sense of what they are "good" at, says Karl Rosengren, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. If a child sees herself as clumsier than her pals, she'll be less likely to join in free play. Of course, some kids are seriously clumsy and are diagnosed with what's known as developmental coordination disorder. They tend to have issues with balance, bouncing a ball, using scissors, and even drawing.
While only a small number of kids have this type of severe problem, as many as 30 percent of below-average kids might benefit from consistent additional help, says Dr. Rosengren. Try these easy and fun moves to assist your child -- whatever her skill level -- to boost coordination at every age.
Build Baby Skills By...
Adding Tummy Time
Since we put babies to sleep on their back, it's important for them to spend some awake time on their stomach. Babies who play (or even lie) on their belly while interacting with their parents and caregivers achieve motor milestones more quickly than babies who don't -- all the way up until toddlerhood, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. As early as your baby's first week home, give her a minute or two of tummy time on a parent's belly. Do this after every nap, diaper change, and feeding, as long as she doesn't have any reflux issues (in which case before a feeding is best). Aim for about 15 minutes per day in the beginning, and about half an hour by six months.
Belting It Out
Move your baby's arms and legs along to simple songs like "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" and "Where Is Thumbkin?" (Need a refresher? See our videos at parents.com/nursery-rhymes.) The rhythm and movement help build an early form of coordination, says Lisa Chiarello, Ph.D., a pediatric physical therapist and an associate professor at Drexel University, in Philadelphia.
Getting the Ball Rolling
Older babies love to play with balls, and they can learn key skills from basic games, says Kim Graber, Ed.D., associate professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois. Once your child can sit up, roll a ball back and forth. This encourages his tracking skills and teaches ball handling before he can stand up and throw and catch. After he's started cruising, he may enjoy trying to kick a large ball.
Help Toddlers Be More Hands-On By...
Bouncing a Blanket
In this easy version of a parachute game, you and your child hold a sheet or a blanket by the edges and bounce objects (such as balled-up socks) in the air. Dr. Chiarello says it's a multitasker: "While your child's bouncing the object with his arms, he's learning the concept of up and down. And because you're both moving your feet a little too, he's practicing stepping sideways, in, and out."
It'll take a few years for your child to master the mechanics, but toddlers want to play ball now. So offer a variety to make it more intriguing. "Some kids like a heavier ball, because it helps them feel the input to their joints," says pediatric occupational therapist Judy Schaer Wilner, a consultant at the Bank Street Family Center in New York City. "Others like a lighter one, because they'll be less afraid of getting hit in the face. Beach balls are great because you can deflate them a bit; they're easier to grab when they're squishy."
Although some kids don't master the underhand throw until they're 3 or 4, toddlers still like to try. In the meantime, have your child toss all kinds of objects -- she can lob wadded-up pieces of paper into the laundry basket, beanbags into a trash can, or Wiffle balls through a Hula-hoop.
Decorating the Driveway
Kids love all sorts of water play, but a bucket of water and a few big paintbrushes will let your child "paint" the sidewalk or driveway before he has the fine motor skills to hold crayons well.
Let Preschoolers Step Up Their Game By...
Unleveling the Playing Field
Kids can usually hop or stand on one leg for five seconds by the time they're 4, but it isn't any fun at all if they need to work on balance, says Dr. Chiarello. Instead, help your child walk on unstable surfaces. Cover the floor with pillows and sofa cushions, throw a sheet over them, and ask her to walk across. "She'll probably even like falling down," Dr. Chiarello notes.
Throwing Harder, Then Softer
Some kids toss with too much or too little force and need extra practice, says Wilner. Stack blocks or empty soda bottles, and have your child knock them down from a position closer and then farther away. He'll gradually get a feel for how hard he needs to throw.
Hopping to It
Play hopscotch -- either outdoors, or indoors using an old yoga mat -- to boost your kid's balance skills, core strength, and hand-foot coordination.
While kids don't usually get the hang of it until age 5 or so, even 3-year-olds want to jump. Teach your child how to swing the rope over her head, and let it hit the ground before jumping over it. If she gets frustrated, lay the rope on the ground and let her pretend to walk on a tightrope, another way to boost balance skills.
Even if your child would rather watch TV than play these games, keep trying. "It's important to avoid making sweeping pronouncements, such as, 'She just doesn't like physical games,'" points out Dr. Graber. "After all, you probably wouldn't say, 'She's not really into reading, so I let her watch TV instead.' Reintroduce activities every few months." For example, a toddler who didn't like going in a friend's pool last summer might love splashing with you at the Y now. The only way your child can develop the skills needed to run, jump, and play is by getting lots of practice. "You don't need to force her to do something she doesn't enjoy," Dr. Graber says. "But there are many ways you can engage kids in fun physical activities."
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Parents magazine.