With Summer approaching (hopefully!) , it’s time to get outdoors and exercising again. So, today I wanted to talk about the vestibular (balance system) and the power of movement.
Movement is important for maintaining healthy bodies at a healthy weight. With 1 in 3 Irish children classed as obese, for this reason alone our children need to be active for at least one hour a day.
Movement is also the most important of the senses for sensory integration.
The vestibular (movement and balance system) system is located in the inner ear. It comprises of 3 fluid filled circular canals that can detect changes in head position through tiny hairs within the canals moving with the movement of the fluid. Imagine the canals like half filled bottles of lemonade- when your head tips to the right, the fluid moves over to the right and this tells your brain in which direction your head has moved. This helps give you a sense of which position your head and body are in.
But the vestibular system does not work alone. Most of the other senses also play a role in giving you an awareness of where your body is. For example;
The proprioceptive system (in your muscles and joints) sends feedback to your brain every time you move your body about which direction your muscles and joint have moved in.
The tactile (touch in your skin) system sends feedback every time your skin touches of something or is stretched like off your clothes or the floor as you move.
Your sense of smell will tell you how close to something you are as the smell gets stronger.
The eyes allow you to see what position you are in. They also work together with the vestibular system through reflexes to keep the image you are seeing steady. This makes is easier for the brain to make sense of.
The auditory system (hearing) tells you where you are by how close a sound is. Because your ears are located on each side of the head, you can tell if a sound is louder on the right or left and so this makes it easier to locate.
The brain needs to integrate all this sensory information in order have a good awareness of where the body is. This is essential for coordinated movement of the body (which includes sitting still!) . If the brain is having to ‘think about’ information coming in from the senses in order to know where the body is then this makes other tasks such as moving, paying attention, language development and academic learning more difficult.
So how does the brain learn to integrate this information…through practice! And practise comes through movement.
The more a child moves, the more practice the brain gets at integrating the information from the senses, so the easier it gets.
So this is why movement is so important for children’s developing sensory systems. In order to fully stimulate the movement system the head needs to move in all directions (up and down, upside down, in circles, forwards and backwards etc). Young children need 3-4 hours a day of active movement in order to get their daily sensory integration practice. Typically developing children will seek out opportunities to move if they are allowed the time, space and opportunity. See my blog on opportunities in nature for sensory integration here.
Here are some other ideas you can try at home..
- Building obstacle courses – that encourage the child to change through different head positions e.g. crawling under a blanket, stepping on cushions, jumping over a cushion, log rolling.
- Simple whole body stretch– Start bent over with the fingertips touching toes- look at the toes. Take a deep breath in and reach the arms all the way up, over the head and look up at the ceiling.
- Balloon volley ball– try and keep a balloon up in the air as long as possible or pass it to one another.
- Skipping– For older children skipping is a fantastic opportunity to use the visual and vestibular systems together (as well as building strength in the arms). If the child is too young to skip, lie the rope down flat and ask them to jump over it backwards and forwards.
- Skipping rope limbo– Hold the rope between two people and ask the child to crawl under it without touching it. Lower it gradually to make it harder.
- Animal races- Crawl like a dog, on hand and feet like a camel or tip toes like a giraffe- race to the finish line!
- Unload the shopping- Bending down then looking up shifts the head and eye position repeatedly- ask your child to pass you the shopping out of the bags, clothes to put away or dishes out of the dishwasher.
- Target practice- Throw paired socks into the laundry basket or balls into a hoola hoop or basket ball hoop.
- Dancing- Put on some music and dance to your favourite tunes !
- Yoga- Yoga incorporates lots of changes in head position. Find a family yoga class in your area you can attend together and then practise at home.
Always allow a child to move at their own pace. Encourage movement through demonstration and play – never force the child to move in a way that makes them anxious. If your child has sensory integration difficulties due to Autism or another developmental condition- consult your Occupational Therapist on the best way to facilitate movement opportunities. Children with visual difficulties and/or hearing loss may also find too much movement makes them dizzy/giddy – so also consult your Occupational Therapist on how to grade the activities to suit your child.
Most importantly – Have fun! If your child sees you having fun and being active they are more likely to want to join in too.