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Make Sensory Exploration Integral to your Setting to Boost Wellbeing and Development

Fine-tuning your setting to foster sensory integration can help keep children on track, says Sue Heron…

  • Make Sensory Exploration Integral to your Setting to Boost Wellbeing and Development

In order for us to move and interact successfully, our senses must work both independently and together to help us ‘make sense’ of the world.

Vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste are often part of multisensory play, but three further senses, telling us about our bodies, are key to development: the proprioceptive, vestibular and interoceptive senses.

Proprioception

Specialised cells, in muscles and around joints, provide our brains with information on our body’s position – our proprioception detectors! Every time we squeeze or stretch a muscle or joint, our proprioceptive sense is activated. We increase proprioceptive input with hard muscular work and physical activity. Examples of proprioceptive-rich activities include pushing, pulling, squeezing and stretching.

Why it’s important
Our proprioceptive sense increases our body awareness and keeps us safe. Using proprioception, we can negotiate obstacles and hold objects with the right amount of pressure. It also supports self-regulation. Our bodies seem to enjoy proprioceptive input. It is often called the ‘safe sense’ as proprioceptive-rich activities help us feel ‘grounded’ and ’just right’.

The vestibular sense

Specialised cells in our inner ears inform our brain about our head movements, eg is our head moving and in which direction? Spinning, swinging and jumping activities activate this sense.

Why it’s important
Our vestibular sense helps us to balance and move, influences our visual and listening skills (this sense is crucial for focusing skills and has close links with our hearing system), and supports self-regulation. It is the ‘volume control’ of the body – quick head movements ‘wake us up’ whilst keeping the head still helps us to calm down.

Interoception

Our interoceptive sense tells our brains about our internal organs, eg do we feel hungry? Is our heart beating quicker? Do we feel ‘butterflies in our stomachs’? Interoception is thought to be important for emotional self-regulation.

Sensory integration

Sensory integration usually happens when we are young, our brains naturally learning how to receive sensory information from our body and the environment, organise this information and produce an appropriate action or response. Active play encourages, and relies on, sensory integration skills.

Why it’s important
Sensory integration is important for all aspects of life, from eating and dressing, to learning and socialising. It is fundamental for…

i) Motor planning skills
Making our bodies do what we want them do.

ii) Self-regulation
From birth, we learn how to regulate our ‘levels of alertness’, waking ourselves up for play, calming ourselves down for rest. This ‘biological self-regulation’ depends on sensory input and integration. Examples of more mature self-regulation behaviours involving sensory integration include…

  • Maintaining attention on an object or a person, despite being surrounded by other (distracting) sensory inputs. In this situation, the brain automatically prioritises only useful sensory information.
  • Responding appropriately to a sensory input, eg listening to spoken instructions, or not becoming overwhelmed in a noisy situation. A good example of sensory integration could be a child kicking a ball into a goal in a busy playground. Sensory integration ensures their kick is coordinated and they maintain focus despite the many distractions.

Developing sensory integration

Some 50 years ago, Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist, proposed a theory around sensory integration and its development. She focused on the integration of the vestibular, proprioceptive, touch, vision, and hearing senses.

First off, the ‘power sensations’, touch, vestibular and proprioception, are integrated. This process, starting in the womb and continuing up to around seven years, provides the basis for brain development. It leads to…

Emotional stability and gravitational security
Children who have problems integrating these senses can be withdrawn, or easily distracted. Infants need to feel ‘at home’ with gravity, so poor integration at this stage can result in a fear of falling and feelings of insecurity.

Development of balance and gross motor skills
Poor integration can cause delay in key physical skills, eg head control, rolling or crawling.

Early attention skills
Integration of the power sensations means an infant is encouraged to focus on…

  • Objects – exploring toys by holding, squeezing, mouthing, and moving them
  • People – turning to look at them and hold their gaze

From around 9-12 months, the power sensations continue their integration, and start to integrate with the auditory and visual senses. This leads to…

Understanding of language and speech
Integration of vestibular and auditory senses assists listening skills, while talking depends on good integration of the touch, proprioceptive and vestibular senses, as it requires detailed awareness of mouth movements.

Visual perception and functional skills, eg cutlery skills
Integration of the visual sense with the power sensations means children can direct their hands whilst maintaining their balance.

A greater awareness of the interoceptive sense is driving further research on its role in development.

Offer support

Understanding children’s sensory needs, and encouraging sensory integration, can improve their quality of life, helping them achieve their full potential. Here’s how to help…

  1. Keep it fun
    And keep the challenge ‘just right’ for the child!
  2. See behaviour, think sensory
    Some children are incredibly sensitive to sensations, reacting strongly to bright lights, loud noises or certain textures. If you feel a child’s behaviour is extreme, and may have a sensory basis, a medical referral could be appropriate.
  3. Be a ‘sensory detective’
    Observe children closely to identify their unique alerting and calming sensory preferences. Offer children periods of low sensory input, in quiet environments, along with periods of higher sensory input, in more stimulating environments, and note how they respond. You can then adapt the activity, or the environment, if necessary, eg…
    • If a child feels drowsy they may seek vestibular sensations to alert themselves, fidgeting or rocking on their chairs – these are signs it’s time to move!
    • Does a child seek hugs, soft textures, or proprioceptive-rich activities to calm themselves?
  4. Create goal-orientated play opportunities
    Purposeful sensory activities support sensory integration better than random sensory experiences. Play ideas include…

    • Sand play – hide a toy in the sand, then show the child a similar toy and ask them to find the one you have hidden
    • Obstacle courses that challenge the senses and have clear goals
    • ‘Daily-life’ sensory activities, eg tidy-up time

Remember…


Proprioceptive activities can alert a drowsy child or calm an overexcited child. Examples include…

  • Wriggling on the floor
  • Pushing/pulling toy carts, or suitable heavy objects
  • Climbing games
  • Taking weight through the limbs to compress joints, eg crawling, ‘bear walking’ games.

Vestibular-rich/light activities help children alert or calm themselves. Alerting activities include…

  • Jumping and spinning games (short spells of 20–30 secs)
  • Swings

Calming activities include…

  • Slow rocking movements
  • Relaxation games – lying/sitting with the head still

Integration of the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile senses lays foundations for development. Encourage children to…

  • Explore different surfaces, textures with their bare feet.
  • Investigate objects, and environments, in different positions, eg play with toys on their tummy, or wriggle, roll or crawl under/over different surfaces.

The vestibular and hearing senses are linked

  • Incorporate listening games into movement activities, and bring movement breaks into your setting’s day

  • Ready for school

    Sensory integration should be well developed when a child starts school. Indeed, ‘school readiness’ defines many skills associated with sensory integration – eg children…

    • Are relatively independent in personal care
      Sensory integration supports the skills needed for this, eg doing up buttons, pulling clothing up/down, putting on shoes.
    • Can cope emotionally with school
      Good sensory integration means a child is not overwhelmed by a busy environment.
    • Have strong social skills
      Sensory integration enables children to talk about their needs and hold attention to answer questions.

    Sue Heron is training coordinator at Children Inspired by Yoga and a Paediatric Physiotherapist. Children Inspired by Yoga runs multisensory sessions in nurseries and schools, introducing vital skills that form the foundation to learning. Its music and story-filled programme is fully aligned to the EYFS, enabling communication and attention skills to advance as physical strength and mobility grow. Visit childreninspiredbyyoga.com.

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