How To Develop Children’s “Extra Senses”

How many senses do we have?

Five, right? – touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell.

However, if you talk to an occupational therapist, you’ll find at least an extra two – vestibular and proprioception – which are vital that you know about.

The vestibular sense is so named because it is sensed in the ‘vestibulum’ system in the inner ear in the semi-circular canals. These are responsible for balance, and it describes both the sense of balance and spatial orientation. The vestibular system detects movement and changes in the position of the head, for example, when your head is upright or tilted (even with your eyes closed).

Proprioception is defined as the perception of stimuli relating to position, posture, equilibrium, or internal condition. Basically this means knowing where your body is in relation to the external environment, for example, being able to sit in a chair without turning round to look, or walk up stairs.

Proprioception is a dynamic sense, allowing us to continuously adapt to a changing environment and is learned through all our other senses and neuro-developmental exercises, usually whilst we are children.

It is vital to know about these, because without good vestibular and proprioception senses, children would not be able to walk, hop, skip, navigate around a room, catch a ball and definitely not be able to manage stairs.

Luckily developing both these senses can be achieved through some very simple activities.

Both senses can be developed through active play:

  • Hopping, ball skills, painting, self dressing, dancing which encourage a sense of self
  • Multisensory activities such as barefoot walking
  • Be allowed to take calculated ‘risks’ such as falling over
  • Experience heavy, light objects, pull and push

The vestibular sense can be developed through:

  • Movement – Large body (gross motor skills) swings, slides
  • Balance – obstacle courses, stairs, slopes, wobble boards
  • Self awareness – balancing on one foot

Proprioception can be developed by:

  • Using play dough, squash and squeeze
  • Ripping up paper
  • Pulling objects from Velcro backings
  • Using construction toys that snap or push together
  • Pushing block carriers or other heavy, large objects
  • Erase or wash board, wipe tables
  • Catch/throw weighted objects (beanbags, balls)

If your children are having problems with their vestibular or proprioception you may see things such as:

  • Being ‘clumsy’, not being able to work out how high the step is
  • Applying inappropriate pressure, may break crayons, tear book pages
  • Can be ‘rough’ during play
  • Knock-on effects can be shyness, withdrawn, lack self confidence, have few friends

So when you are planning activities that are ‘multi-sensory’, don’t forget to include the proprioception and vestibular senses.

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  • Tamsin Grimmer Dec 4,2019 at 6:42 am

    These senses are so often forgotten, yet so important and impact on so many other aspects of children’s development… Thank you for this practical article!

  • Janthea Brigden Dec 2,2019 at 10:48 pm

    Love this article! Particularly walking barefoot. I frequently encourage staff to allow this, just because I believe it connects us to nature and grounds us . I’m often met with “but what if…”. Now I shall reply, “We need to develop children’s vestibular and proprioception senses”, and feel very learned and righteous!

    • Kathy Dec 3,2019 at 10:01 am

      What a fabulous idea Janthea! Sonia Mainstone-Cotton talks about going barefoot in the meadow as a contemplative thing for adults to do – it really works! Keep up the good work x

  • Dawn Mulvaney Dec 2,2019 at 9:45 am

    Ace article! I had terrible proprioception when i was a kid and working on it is an important part of managing my connective tissue disorder… even as a grown up!

    • Kathy Dec 3,2019 at 9:59 am

      Thanks so much Dawn! An interesting perspective too.

  • MINE CONKBAYIR Dec 1,2019 at 8:04 pm

    Quite simply, I love everything you do!

    • Kathy Dec 1,2019 at 8:15 pm

      Thank you so much! How very kind of you 🙂

  • Mari Nov 25,2015 at 12:04 am

    You should be a part of a competition for one of the greatest
    sites on the internet. I’ll recommend this website!

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