By Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy, coauthors of A Moving Child Is a Learning Child: How the Body Teaches the Brain to Think (Birth to Age 7). This post was originally published on the Moving Smart Blog.
Seven? Yes, seven.
Beyond the five senses we learn about in school (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch), there are actually two more: the vestibular system (sense of balance) and proprioception (our intuitive sense of space and position).
You may not be familiar with these words. So, you might be surprised to hear that the vestibular system and the proprioceptive sense make possible just about everything we do (even sleeping). And they do so without us noticing. That’s because, as adults, we’ve had years of experience with these senses, making them automatic for us.
But they are not automatic for kids. Just as kids need to learn to use their other five senses, kids need to learn what the vestibular and proprioceptive senses are trying to tell them through the trial-and-error process of everyday living, playing, and moving. And because these two senses guide and govern how we use our bodies, they contribute to every major milestone and are often behind those fall-down-and-go-boom moments.
So, let’s take a quick tour of these two not-so-well-known senses.
Sense #6: The Vestibular System (Balance)
The vestibular system is the scientific term for our sense of balance, responsible for keeping us upright and stable. And if you think about it, without balance, we pretty much couldn’t do anything. For instance, if you’re reading this sitting down, your vestibular system is keeping you upright and in the chair. Now, you might be thinking that the chair is keeping you upright. But in fact, if your brain didn’t understand which way was up, you’d tip right over. And notice how you don’t even have to think about staying upright. Your vestibular system is doing it for you automatically, every day, twenty-four hours a day.
Conversely, kids focus on their balance a lot. Have you ever noticed how when a child sits in a chair, he fidgets? Yes, sometimes he has to go to the bathroom, but quite often, what you’re seeing is his vestibular system at work in his body, helping him adjust himself to feel in balance. In fact, whenever a child moves (on or off the chair, indoors or out, fast or slow, right-side up or upside down, etc.), his inner ear reacts to and records those movements, giving his brain important information about his body’s orientation at any given moment. Over time and with lots of different kinds of movement, a child’s brain will begin to determine what is and isn’t “in balance” for him.
Sense #7: Proprioception (Space and Position)
Proprioception is our body and brain working together to understand and navigate space and objects. Again, for adults this sense is automatic and intuitive. Without thinking about it, you know whether your body will fit through a passageway or not. You climb stairs without looking at them. You have a sense of how much strength you need to push open a door. And you don’t fall out of bed at night. Your proprioceptive sensors (residing in your muscles, tendons, and ligaments) have helped you develop these navigation skills over many years of practical, everyday movements and experiences with space and objects.
A child, of course, is less experienced, so her proprioception is not yet automatic. We can guide her, but only to a point. That’s because the only way for a child to truly know her own body is for her to use it. And yes, that includes bumping into furniture, tripping over her own feet, pushing too hard, and all of those other things that we think of as kid-clumsy. This clumsiness is just her body and brain working together to learn about her environment, using her proprioceptive senses to pave the way.
Why Is He Still Clumsy?
Parents often ask me when kids will stop being so clumsy. Surely, if kids can walk, run, and jump, they must have mastered these senses by now?
Well, of course, those physical capabilities are signs of a child’s maturing vestibular and proprioceptive senses. But he’s not yet mastered those senses for one simple reason—he’s still growing. As the body changes, the brain needs to readjust its understanding of balance, orientation, and, of course, space. And that will take all of a child’s growing years. For instance, to get through the play tunnel he could walk upright last year, he has to duck down to get through it this year. Next year, he’ll probably have to get on all fours and crawl through it.
The thing to look out for isn’t when kids bump into things, but when they begin navigating things on their own. That’s when all their senses, life experience (memory), and emerging problem-solving skills are combining to give them an automatic sense of themselves . . . without the fall-down-and-go-boom part.
Like the other senses, the vestibular and proprioceptive senses actually begin to develop before birth and continue throughout the early years. Simple, everyday, playful activities help teach the brain what balance, space, and position feel like. Here are three activities to try with kids of different ages.
Hug and Dip
For young babies (pre-walking)
Sit in a chair so you’re very steady and hold baby upright, close to your chest so she feels your sense of touch all around her body. Supporting baby’s neck and back (see photograph below), very slowly lean baby back and rest her horizontally on your lap. Hold for a few moments, then, continuing to support her neck and back, tip baby back so that her feet are slightly above her head in an upside-down position. Hold again for a few moments, then slowly bring baby back to a horizontal position, then back up to your chest.
Please note: As with any activity you do with young children, go slow and be very gentle with your movements. If at any time you feel baby is not enjoying the activity, stop immediately. You can always try it another time.
What’s happening here? First, by holding baby close so she feels your touch 360 degrees around her body, you are giving baby’s proprioceptive senses an all-over feel for her own body. Then, by slowly and gently changing her orientation (starting with her head up, then horizontal, then slightly upside down), baby’s vestibular system recognizes and records these changes in position, giving her brain important clues to all the possible ways her body can move.
Let’s Go for a Spin!
For toddlers able to sit up on their own (without support)
Find a cardboard box big enough for the child to sit in and hold on to the sides. Sit the child in the box, then slowly spin the box around. As the child gets accustomed to the sensation, give him a gentle ride around the room in different directions, spinning, zig-zagging, and so on.
What’s happening here? Sitting the child in the box gives him a sense of himself fitting into space (proprioception). When you spin him or give him a ride, his brain is using the vestibular system to keep his orientation upright and in balance.
For preschoolers able to crawl, walk, and run
Lay out a plank several inches off the ground, threading one or more hoops around the plank (see photograph below). Encourage the child to crawl across the plank. Each time she reaches a hoop, encourage her to crawl through the hoop while maintaining her balance on the plank. As the child gains confidence, suggest trying to walk across the plank, crawling through the hoops as she goes.
Please note: Stand by for support as the child needs it.
What’s happening here? Of course, the plank is a great test of the child’s ability to control her balance on a narrow surface. By adding the hoops, you are challenging her coordination and proprioceptive senses to navigate a completely different shape of space.
Gill Connell is a globally recognized child development authority, specializing in the foundations of learning through movement and play. She provides developmental expertise to parents, preschools, schools, and companies, such as Hasbro, Inc., based on her thirty-plus years in preschool and primary education. She is the founder of Moving Smart, Ltd., which offers resources, tools, training, and workshops.
Cheryl McCarthy is a former vice president of intellectual property development for Hasbro, Inc. She is a thirty-year veteran of the world of children’s play, specializing in young children’s storytelling and entertainment. As executive producer, she managed the creative development of properties such as My Little Pony, Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head, and many other beloved children’s icons. She is currently the creative director at Moving Smart, Ltd.
Free Spirit books by Gill and Cheryl:
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