When my kids were little, we played games both for fun and because I knew they could improve certain skills.
I would include letters and numbers in games for them to recognize. They could hop from an A to a G or jump to touch a 5 on a card on the wall. I would have them walk on short garden walls or logs to improve their balance and play with puzzles and blocks to develop their coordination.
But until recently, I didn’t know the importance of developing a child’s visual tracking, and that there were activities I could do to help with that.
What is visual tracking and why is it important?
Visual tracking is the ability to move the eyes from right to left, up and down and around, to focus on a moving object or to be able to switch focus from one object to another.
Just as we have arm muscles we use to throw things, the eyes have muscles we use to move them where we need them to be. But without training the eyes to know where to look, to know what they are looking at, and to be able to move smoothly from one object to another, reading and other skills are harder to develop properly.
When your child is able to focus on one word before they move to another, there’s less chance of them skipping words or not understanding what it is they’re reading.
When it comes to physical literacy, when your child can follow a moving object, they’ll be able to anticipate where an object is headed and step aside when an item is coming at them. They’ll be able to catch a ball, or to place an object where it’s supposed to go. They’ll be able to judge the distance between items so will have less chance of tumbling on stairs or other surfaces.
While we can’t hit the gym to pump up the eye muscles, there are games we can play that can help them develop properly. Here are a few.
1. Burst my bubble!
Playing with soap bubbles [PDF] is a great outdoor activity for your toddler in spring, summer, and fall. Create a bubble mixture using water, Dawn dish soap, and corn syrup or sugar. Buy a bubble-making wand from a toy store or make one with a wire coat hanger. Blow bubbles for your toddler outdoors and encourage them to try to catch the bubbles.
Warning: Bubble blowing will definitely result in laughter and joy.
2. Floating scarves
Up until about 20 months of age, your toddler isn’t ready to practice real catching, but the two of you can have fun trying to grab play scarves out of the air. Play scarves, or play silks, are colourful lightweight scarves designed for children’s play. The bright colours capture the attention of toddlers, and the scarves seem to float magically after you toss them into the air.
Throw a play scarf into the air and try to catch it as it floats down slowly like a feather.
3. Get the ball rolling!
Sit a short distance away from your toddler and with a “Ready, set, go!” roll a colourful ball slowly back and forth with your child. As they watch the ball roll towards them and back towards you, your child will get a sense of where the ball needs to go and anticipate when it will come to them.
4. Balloon play
A colourful balloon is a simple item to keep your toddler’s eyes tracking. Throw up a balloon and your child will watch excitedly to see where it goes. Show them how to hit the balloon to keep it up in the air or watch as it floats gently to the ground.
5. Beam me up! (and around)
I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t love flashlights. There are so many games you can play with them and they just so happen to be great items to help kids with their visual tracking.
Make sure your child has a kid-sized flashlight which can fit into their tiny hands. With each of you holding a flashlight, lie on the floor with your child in a semi-dark room. (Dark is perfect but if it’s too overwhelming, go for the comforting option.)
Move your flashlight slowly making pathways on the ceiling. Ask your child if they can get their own beam of light to follow yours. Eventually the slow moving beam game could turn into a game of flashlight tag with each of you trying to catch the other’s beam.
6. They see me rolling!
Roll a toy car or truck down a ramp. (A cardboard box, a piece of wood, or the top of a storage box works as a perfect ramp). Set the ramp up against a couch, a coffee table, or at the side of a deck. Start with having your child watch as you roll a car or truck down the ramp. Roll it down the left side, the right side, or roll it backwards for a comedic twist. Trust me, your kid will eat this up!
Have your child see if they can catch the car at the bottom of the ramp. Odds are that you will only be allowed a few turns before they insist on being the roller. But the action of your child’s eyes will be the same as they track the direction the car is headed. This is an activity your child will want to play over and over and over.
7. It’s pouring!
If I’m ever baking (and believe me, this is not one of my common activities), I need to make sure that when I pour those raisins into my cookie batter, every single one ends up in the mixing bowl. My eyes are tracking those raisins every millisecond of the way.
Similarly, kids watch as they pour items. For them (as opposed to me being in the kitchen), pouring is SO fun. Provide your child with items to pour and items to pour from. Measuring cups, kids’-sized cups, or empty yogurt tubs are perfect for little hands to grasp.
Use items such as colourful craft pom-poms, buttons, dry beans, or cereal for your kids to fill up their tubs. Just like me with my raisins, kids will watch their items pour out. If they have various items to use, they’ll spend lots of time moving between the various pouring objects. Show them how to pour at hip level and at shoulder level so they can hear or see the objects move in various ways and make different sounds.
(And before you say it, yes, raisins belong in cookies.)
When playing with our kids, there are so many skills we help to develop. When we help our kids with their visual tracking, we’re setting them up to be more successful readers, to be able to catch an object, and to effectively scan their surroundings.