We’ve all heard of the main 5 senses; taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. However, there are two other, very important, senses that don’t get enough attention. Those are the vestibular sense and proprioception. These two senses are vital in the development of a child but are often overlooked, especially in today’s world. This is mostly due to the fact that safety is of the upmost importance for anyone working with children. And while safety is important, the constant lack of “risky play” is contributing to the underdevelopment of these two senses.
The vestibular sense is most easily understood as the sense that helps us with balance and movement. This sense arises in the inner ear when we move our heads and provides the brain with feedback, so the body knows how to react depending on the direction and rate at which we move. It works along with the other senses to assess the environment. Children who have an underdeveloped vestibular system will often fidget, have poor posture, and appear more un-coordinated.
Proprioception is the brain’s ability to determine the orientation of the body, how quickly it is moving, and how close or far away it is from objects. This is the sense that allows someone to put popcorn to their mouth without looking away from the movie. It comes from the nerve endings in the muscles and joints which tell the brain how much tension and contraction is being used. Children who have an underdeveloped proprioceptive sense will exhibit this as being clumsy or pushing too hard when playing, as well as many other things.
With the increased focus on “safety first” when it comes to play, children’s vestibular sense and proprioception are lacking. Not to mention, play time in school has been significantly reduced and when children go home, they spend time watching TV or on an electronic device. All of these modern-day approaches are setting children up for failure when it comes to controlling their behaviors and moods. According to Dr. Peter Gray with pyschologytoday.com “We deprive children of free, risky play, ostensibly to protect them from danger, but in the process we set them up for mental breakdowns.”
Play allows children the freedom develop these senses. They know what they need and seek that out in different ways. A child that is ready for a certain amount of risk may jump off of the playground equipment, while another child, may spin as fast as they can on the merry-go-round. We must allow them to figure it out for themselves. By being allowed some risky play at their own pace, children learn how to regulate anger and fear.
Some types of things that help the development of the vestibular sense and proprioception are jumping, spinning, stretching, and even chores! Physical activities along with a healthy dose of risky play are key in developing these senses. And even better is when children experience deep pressure on muscles through these things so endorphins and oxytocin are release, which helps increase their happiness.
A great resource to help children develop their vestibular sense and proprioception is through the SKILLZ program. This dynamic martial arts system is especially designed with child development in mind. Some of the skills that are taught in this program are jumping, hopping, rolling, flexibility, balance, speed, momentum, and strength…just to name a few. This is all in addition to the actual martial art that is taught that teaches things from punching and kicking pads to hand eye coordination. But even better is that the SKILLZ program has supplemental activities that include acro, board breaking, ground fighting, and ninja warrior courses. All of these things combined allow children to engage in a physical activity and develop all of the senses.
Angela Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist and the founder of TimberNook says “The number of children that now need occupational therapy services to treat their sensory systems is on the rise.” We can help alleviate this by providing children with opportunities to develop their vestibular sense and proprioception with more physical activities and risky play. Whatever it is, children need to move more so they can learn how to process the sensory input they are receiving from the world around them. This will leave them feeling more confident in managing their moods and behaviors.