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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.
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’.
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.
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 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.
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…
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…
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.
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…
Create goal-orientated play opportunitiesPurposeful sensory activities support sensory integration better than random sensory experiences. Play ideas include…
Proprioceptive activities can alert a drowsy child or calm an overexcited child. Examples include…
Vestibular-rich/light activities help children alert or calm themselves. Alerting activities include…
Calming activities include…
Integration of the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile senses lays foundations for development. Encourage children to…
The vestibular and hearing senses are linked
Sensory integration should be well developed when a child starts school. Indeed, ‘school readiness’ defines many skills associated with sensory integration – eg children…
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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