While throwing a ball in the air may seem like a natural motion to you, it’s all new to your baby. They’re still figuring out how to use their hands to grab, hold, and then release an object. Throwing is an early lesson in cause and effect for children, who might practice their newfound skills in some less-than-fun ways at first—like throwing food or toys 🙃 With support from you, as well as plenty of practice, they’ll learn to throw with increasing accuracy, picking up cognitive and motor skills along the way.
In this article:
- When do babies start throwing things?
- Why do babies throw things?
- Why do toddlers throw things?
- What are the developmental benefits of throwing?
- Activities & toys to practice throwing
- How to stop your baby or toddler from throwing food
- How to stop your baby or toddler from throwing toys
- Developmental concerns with throwing
When do babies start throwing things?
Between 9 and 12 months, your child may accidentally throw an object. They may shake their hands to release a ball they’re holding, and suddenly realize that the ball has been flung to a distance and is bouncing and rolling away. Once your baby discovers how to voluntarily release an object, throwing isn’t far behind.
Around 12 to 14 months, your toddler will begin to explore their newfound skills, flinging a ball by extending their arm from their shoulder. They’re now able to play an early form of “catch” while sitting, intentionally pushing a playground ball toward you with their hands.
Around 15 to 16 months, your toddler may be able to keep their balance while throwing a small ball by extending their arm forward. It’s common for toddlers at this age to enjoy throwing toys—and food. By 16 to 24 months, your child may be able to throw overhand within a few feet of their intended target.
Underhand throwing begins to emerge a little bit later than overhand throwing, around 23 to 24 months. With practice, your child’s underhand and overhand throwing skills will continue to progress, as they gradually increase their throwing distance, coordination, and accuracy.
Why do babies throw things?
Your baby doesn’t throw things to misbehave or to annoy you. Here are two reasons why babies just seem to love throwing things, once they learn how:
Voluntary release: Babies often end up throwing things on the floor—or across the room—because they’re refining and practicing their motor skills, especially voluntary release. This ability to release an object from their grip takes practice to learn how to control. The voluntary release skill usually develops around 9 to 10 months of age, so you may see your baby start to intentionally throw or drop things around this time, including water from cups or food from their high chair. Your baby may also throw things by accident as they work on learning how to grasp, hold, and then release an item with control.
Cause and effect: Adults know, of course, that if you throw a cup full of water, it spills everywhere. Your baby doesn’t yet understand how this cause-and-effect relationship works—so to them, almost every object they encounter is an experiment waiting to happen. Babies learn so much through hands-on experimentation, and your baby may throw things simply to discover what happens. Your little scientist is learning something new with each throw, as they watch the object move through the air and make a noise when it drops.
Why do toddlers throw things?
You may be surprised to learn that your toddler has some pretty good reasons to throw their food on the floor 🙃 It may look like limit-testing, but think of your toddler’s tendency to throw objects, food, and toys as part of a process of constant exploration—not intentional misbehavior. Here’s what your toddler is testing when they throw things:
Curiosity: Your toddler is insatiably curious about the world. At times, they may throw things just to see what happens. Why does the ball fly across the room but the paper falls immediately? What happens if I throw something squishy like spaghetti? Sometimes, unfortunately, curiosity gets a little messy.
Trajectory schema: At around 19 to 21 months of age, your toddler may become fascinated by how things move through the air, on the ground, or how they can make things move. Their fascination is part of the trajectory schema in their play, one of several play schemas children use to understand how the world works.
Emotions: Because the part of your toddler’s brain that helps them manage emotions is still developing, your toddler sometimes has strong emotional reactions to seemingly minor events. They don’t yet have the skills to regulate big, overwhelming emotions, so those emotions may find release through physical exertion—like throwing things when they’re angry or frustrated.
What are the developmental benefits of throwing?
Even if catch isn’t your child’s favorite game to play—or yours—throwing can have surprising developmental benefits.
Gross motor skills: Throwing supports your child’s gross motor development since it uses many large muscle groups. In addition to arm muscles, your toddler also uses their core for stability and their legs to brace themselves when they throw. When your toddler throws, the muscles that maintain their balance have to adjust to prevent them from falling. Also known as postural control, this skill supports future skills like running and jumping.
Coordination: Throwing supports your toddler’s coordination skills as they figure out how to throw in different ways—flinging objects, overhand throws, and underhand tosses all require a different movement pattern. Throwing also offers lots of practice for hand-eye coordination, especially as your child progresses with throwing and learns to aim at a target.
Cognitive skills: While it may not be obvious, throwing has cognitive benefits for children too. Throwing an object helps your child experiment with cause-and-effect relationships, as they begin to understand how the force they use to throw causes an object to fly farther, or how their aim affects the direction of the object. Throwing objects of different sizes and weights is also a hands-on way to understand gravity.
Language development: Throwing brings new opportunities to support your child’s speech and language development. Use your toddler’s interest in throwing by verbally narrating or signing to them. Consider saying “my turn” and “your turn,” “ready set, go!” “1, 2, 3” “wee!” “go!” “throw” or “boom!” when you play. Incorporating language along with movement gives these words meaning.
Activities and toys to practice throwing
You can help your child practice their throwing skills in appropriate ways with a range of activities and games:
Between 16 and 24 months of age, your child may begin throwing a ball, although intention and precision will come with practice. Here are a few throwing activities to try with your toddler:
Soft throws: When you’re ready to practice throwing, start by showing them how you can throw a soft ball toward a basket. Throwing a ball directly to your toddler may scare them.
Rolling the ball: Although your child may be a little young to understand a game of catch, you can start to introduce this idea. Try sitting close, facing your child, and rolling the ball to them, and see if they pick it up. If they do, say, “You caught the ball!” If they then accidentally drop it, you can take a turn and say, “Mommy caught the ball,” and roll it back to them.
Knock over the cups: Line up empty plastic cups or empty water bottles to make a DIY “bowling alley” for your toddler. Offer them a soft ball to throw at the cups to try to knock them down.
Cause and effect activities
One reason your baby or toddler loves to throw things is because they’re fascinated by cause and effect. Some engaging activities that illustrate this concept:
Ball runs: Encourage your toddler to release objects of different sizes and weights on a ramp or ball run. For example, you might gather a ball, a peg, a block, and a Mosaic Button for the Slide & Seek Ball Run. Let your child decide which objects to test on the spiral slide.
Gravity tests: Show your child how to use gravity to get Magic Tissues or pegs into a large bowl, bucket, or laundry basket. Start by dropping before moving on to tossing. Experiment from different distances, making sure the container is close enough and large enough for your toddler to be successful. Talk with your toddler about how different objects behave differently when they’re dropped: “The tissue was light so it dropped slowly, and the peg was heavier so it dropped fast.”
Up and down: Take your toddler outside or to a room with some space and toss a soft ball up into the air. Watch together as it falls, and say, “First it goes up, then it goes down.” Use the Opposite Balls, alternating between throwing the heavy then light ball up in the air.
Coordinating both hands: Challenge your toddler’s coordination by giving them two balls to throw at the same time, or choose which ball to throw first. After your toddler throws the two balls, help them notice which ball went further: “Look, the blue ball went further than the yellow ball!”
Trajectory schema activities
Thanks to the trajectory play schema your child is busy exploring in early toddlerhood, they’ll probably love any activity that lets them watch something move—or better yet, lets them make it move.
Falling leaves: Have you ever wondered why young children love playing in piles of dry leaves? This is a great example of the trajectory schema at play. They can throw the leaves up and watch how they fall down in random ways. Your child may also love throwing themselves in the leaves too.
Gross motor play: Part of the trajectory schema is exploring the way their own body moves, so provide your toddler with opportunities to tumble, roll, jump, crawl, bounce, swing, and more.
Learning to aim and throw
While your child may not have control over the direction of the throw yet, around age 2 to 2.5 they may be learning to throw forward using a more accurate overhand or underhand motion.
Aiming at hoops: Set up the Jump-In Eco Hoops as a target for the organic cotton bean bags and model tossing—take turns throwing to make the game fun even if your child is not able to aim well. If you notice your little one flinging or dropping the bean bag, and you want to work more on throwing, you can use a simple verbal cue of “back… and throw!” for underhand, or “up… and throw!” for overhand throwing. See how many bean bags you and your child can toss in the same hoop, and count them afterward.
Aiming practice: Pull a cardboard box out of the recycling bin and reuse it as a target to help your toddler practice their aim. Set the box on a table or chair and cut a large hole in one side. For added fun, decorate the box as a face or a monster with the hole being the “mouth” of the creature. Encourage your toddler to try to throw a felt ball or bean bag into the creature’s mouth—and cheer them on when they make it.
How to stop your baby or toddler from throwing food
Seeing your baby or toddler throw food on the floor is understandably frustrating, even when you know it’s all part of exploring a new motor skill. While most families have rules against throwing food at mealtimes, at this young age your child doesn’t have the cognitive maturity to follow the rules from meal to meal or in different situations.
Instead, use mealtime as an opportunity to model appropriate ways to handle food. If your child throws food, try to resist showing an emotional reaction. Here’s what to do instead:
Stay calm and use a neutral tone as you pick up the cup or plate and put it back on your child’s tray. Not making it into a big deal will help prevent it from becoming a game to your child.
Introduce language to describe what happens when your child throws things at mealtime. You can say, “Bang. Your water made a loud sound. Water is for drinking. I’m going to help you keep your cup on your high chair.“ Or, “Uh-oh, you threw your water. Water is for drinking. I am going to hold it with you.” For a baby or toddler, this is enough of a limit.
Offer positive reinforcement when they handle their food in a more appropriate way: “Wow! I see you just picked up that piece of banana and got it into your mouth all on your own!”
Redirect their interest in throwing food by having a small bowl on their tray table that they can drop food into,instead of on the floor. You can demonstrate and say, “drop” or “in” as you drop their food in a bowl.
If your child continues to throw food or drinks at meals, repeat that “Food is for eating,” or try putting fewer pieces of food on their tray at a time. If the throwing doesn’t stop, it might be a sign that they’re done with their meal—simply clean up and move on to another activity. These types of lessons often require many repetitions before your toddler learns not to throw food. As they mature, your positive modeling of mealtime behavior will begin to take hold.
In the meantime, encourage your child to channel their love of throwing things into more appropriate activities. For example, let them drop and throw objects of different sizes and weights, like a diaper into the diaper pail, socks into the laundry basket, balls into a bucket, bath toys in the bathtub, or crumpled paper or beanbags into a box. This helps redirect your toddler’s throwing behavior—and also comes in handy when cleaning up toys 🙂
How to stop your baby or toddler from throwing toys
Throwing is a developmentally appropriate activity for babies and toddlers—it’s a way for your child to try out new motor skills, learn about cause and effect, and test how things move. So trying to prevent all throwing is probably not a realistic expectation. Instead, you can model what items are appropriate to throw and in what settings.
Practice throwing activities and games. Offering your child plenty of opportunities to practice throwing with appropriate materials may help reduce throwing in other settings. Offer them soft items to throw indoors like the Rainbow Ball. Play games like bean bag toss or tossing dirty clothes into the hamper.
Giving them a target to throw at is a great way to practice throwing, without setting the precedent of throwing toys everywhere. Let your toddler practice throwing playthings into the Lovevery cardboard box or a laundry hamper, or any container large enough to give your toddler a good chance of success. If you notice that your toddler gets excited when throwing makes a big noise, a large pot can maximize the cause-and-effect fun.
Co-regulate when big emotions come up. Your toddler may sometimes throw things when they feel angry or frustrated. When this happens, helping your child regulate their emotions with your support is often the best strategy. Focus on setting a limit on the behavior, such as throwing toys, and not on the emotion itself: “You are so angry that your sister tried to take the toy. I know it’s frustrating. Throwing toys can hurt someone. I’ll hold the toy to keep everyone safe.”
As challenging as it can be to keep your cool when your toddler throws things, try to remember that your child isn’t intentionally trying to have a tantrum—they’re experiencing strong emotions and have limited capacity for managing them at this age. Self-regulation is a skill children work on through most of early childhood. Naming your child’s emotions and narrating what they’re experiencing helps them feel understood, comforted, and seen, and helps establish healthy self-regulating habits.
Use redirection when necessary. When your child acts in a way that you want to discourage, instead of focusing on the inappropriate behavior, try to redirect to an appropriate behavior that might fulfill the same need. If your child reacts physically by throwing an object, you could say something like, “Oh! Your body is so excited. I am going to help you by giving you a hug.” If your toddler is throwing food, rocks, or sand, redirect them to items like light scarves, soft balls, light plastic balls, or small bean bags. If you can, it’s sometimes helpful to change the scenery or activity. Take your child outside for some playtime or a walk, give them an early bath, or move with them to a different room.
Developmental concerns with throwing
The ability to throw develops over time in your child as well as their skill and accuracy at aiming the throw. Some of your child’s skill at throwing also depends on the size and weight of the ball (or object) they’re throwing. Throwing skills, of course, also improve with additional practice. By around 18 months of age, your child may be able to throw a small ball from a standing position without falling over. At about 2 years of age, your child may be able to throw a tennis ball several feet with either an underhand or overhand throw.
The development of throwing skills, similar to other advanced motor activities like bicycling and kicking, is dependent on a child’s exposure to the activity. If your child isn’t able to throw a ball by 18 months of age or loses their balance easily while throwing, consult your pediatrician. They can assess your child’s development and answer any questions.
Meet the Experts
Learn more about the Lovevery child development experts who created this story.
Research & Resources
Atherton, F., Nutbrown, C. (2013). Understanding Schemas and Young Children: From Birth to Three. United Kingdom: SAGE Publications.
Athey, C. (1990). Extending thought in young children: A parent-teacher partnership.
London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
Deguara, J., & Nutbrown, C. (2018). Signs, symbols and schemas: Understanding meaning in a child’s drawings. International Journal of Early Years Education, 26(1), 4-23.
Louis, S. (2008). Again, Again! Understanding Schemas in Young Children. United Kingdom: A&C Black.
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