Learn more about the vestibular system – what is it, why is it important to growth and development, and what can you do to support it in your child?
What is the Vestibular System?
The vestibular system has to do with balance and movement and is centered in the inner ear. Each of us has vestibular organs located deep inside our ears. When we move our heads, the fluid in these organs moves and shifts, constantly providing us with information about the position of our heads and bodies in space (spatial awareness).
This sense allows us to maintain our balance and to experience gravitational security: confidence that we can maintain a position without falling. The vestibular system allows us to move smoothly and efficiently. It also works right alongside all of our other sensory systems, helping us use our eyes effectively and process sounds in our environment. Overall, vestibular processing helps us feel confident moving and interacting with our surroundings.
A Healthy Vestibular System
When our vestibular sense is fully functioning, we are secure and organized enough in our bodies to be able to attend and respond to all of the other senses we encounter daily. A child with a well-developed vestibular sense feels confident and safe during movement activities, even if his feet are off the ground. He is able to start and stop movement activities calmly and with control. He is comfortable with climbing, swinging, somersaulting, and jumping – knowing that his body will adapt and that he will be able to maintain his balance and keep himself from falling or getting hurt.
Problems With Vestibular Processing
A healthy vestibular system is central to the integration of the other sensory systems. When a child’s vestibular system is not functioning correctly, he may be under responsive or overly sensitive to movement. He may either need to move constantly to feel satisfied or he may be fearful of movement because it makes him feel insecure and unbalanced. He may move in an uncoordinated, clumsy manner, bumping into things, falling, and never fully walking or sitting in an upright manner. This is the child that slouches at his desk or is constantly being directed to “stand up straight” or “quit leaning on the wall!” He may appear weak or “floppy.”
As a result, he might have difficulty coordinating and planning motor tasks such as jumping jacks, skipping, catching a ball with two hands, or reaching across the center of his body (crossing midline), or even coordinating movements of the mouth, resulting in difficulty with speech production.
Vision is closely related to the vestibular system. When we feel balanced and centered, our eyes can move smoothly and steadily and are able to focus, track, and discriminate between objects in our environment. Difficulty with tasks that require the eyes to move left to right (e.g. reading) or up and down repeatedly (e.g. copying information from the board) may be signs of a disrupted vestibular system.
If your child exhibits any symptoms of vestibular processing difficulties, seek advice from your physician and/or an occupational therapist who can guide your child in a safe, secure manner to develop and adapt this important sensory function.
Activities to Promote the Development of a Healthy Vestibular System
Most children develop a strong vestibular sense simply through engaging in everyday play activities that allow for exploration and movement. There are many activities that can help promote the development of a healthy vestibular system. Here are some of our favorites:
-Any and all things playground related!
– Swings are great for encouraging all sorts of movement (front to back, side to side, circular) Let kids go at their own speed: fast and high, or slow and low. It’s all great vestibular experience! Not at the park? Try a blanket or sheet held by two adults for a makeshift swing!
-Slides are also beneficial for providing fast movement.
-Hanging upside down from playground equipment
-Rocking! Fast, slow, or to the rhythm of your favorite song! Or try these fun Row, Row, Row Your Boat Activities.
-Spinning! Office-style swivel chairs are perfect. Or try a sit and spin toy, log rolling across floors or down hills, somersaults, or cartwheels. Other ways to spin: tire swings, scooter boards, and merry go rounds.
-Jumping! On a trampoline, up/down off curbs or other surfaces, jumping jacks, jump rope, hopscotch. Bouncing on a large inflatable ball (exercise ball). Try our Making Waves jumping activity.
-Running! Set up an obstacle course with options to go over/under, climb up/down, run backwards from one point to another, etc. Try a game of hide and seek or tag! Get moving with our 10 Fun Couch Cushion Games or try Creating Your Own Rollercoaster!
-Balance activities: walk on the curb or a balance beam, walk across the bed without falling, stand on a half inflated beach ball, walk while balancing an item on your head, play Twister, or try some fun Kids Yoga Activities.
-Check out our round-up of great toys to promote vestibular system development!
Want to learn more about sensory processing? Check out our book, Sensory Processing 101!
Read up on the rest of the sensory systems by checking out our entire series about sensory processing, including the following posts:
Check out our series on Sensory Processing Strategies for Teens & Older Kids.
Click over to Lemon Lime Adventures to read more about sensory processing disorder and the vestibular system.