Priscila Caçola, Ph.D
Have you ever wondered why a child learning to strike with a tennis racquet has trouble “finding” the ball? For adults, research shows that holding a racket or any tool that increases the ability of the body to reach further makes the brain recognize that tool as part of the “body schema.” The “body schema” is how we represent our body dimensions in our minds, so we can calculate distances and how we fit in the space surrounding us. Because the brain is ableto include the tool as part of the body schema, hitting a ball accurately with a racket is, generally speaking, not a problem for an adult learning how to play tennis.
For children, learning such a skill can be much more difficult. In a general sense, lack of experience might play a role in that difficulty. On one hand, it is very likely that children as young as 6 years of age have played quite a while with a variety of toys that require use of sticks, such as sport implements (golf clubs, bats). In fact, learning how to use tools to accomplish goals is an important milestone, developing at the beginning of the second year of life. On the other hand, while adults have a very good representation of their body schema, children have to constantly update that representation of their body in their mind, because of all developmental changes in body size and position (e.g.; limbs get longer) that happen during the early developing years.
So why would a child still have trouble finding the ball with a racket? The explanation comes from the notion of “coincident timing” ability. Coincident timing is the ability to match the body position with an object in motion. While children in the study were able to use a tool and correctly judge their reaching abilities by looking at a dot that was not moving, in most sports, it is necessary to judge distances and also stop a ball in motion. Obviously when playing, there is no way that a ball can be stopped, but in learning activities that involve implements, instructors should always reinforce dynamic activities, so children can get used to estimating distance when the ball is moving – and their racket can finally “find” the ball!
For further readings related to this topic:
Longo, M. R., & Lourenco, S. F. (2006). On the nature of near space: Effects of tool use and the transition to far space. Neuropsychologia, 44, 977 – 981.
Higuchi, T., Imanaka, K., & Patla, A. (2006). Action-oriented representation of peripersonal and extrapersonal space: Insights from manual and locomotor actions. Japanese Psychological Research, 48(3), 126-140.