Next up in the sensory processing series – the vestibular system!  I will summarize and highlight information here in this post, but there is so much more to learn and explore when it comes to any of the sensory systems.  Check out this post and this post for links to references you can explore if you want to learn even more!

What is the vestibular system?

The vestibular system is another hidden sense.  Simply put, the vestibular system refers to our sense of movement and balance.  It it located in the inner ear. When we move our heads, the fluid in the inner ears moves around and gives information about where your head and body is in space.  The vestibular system also has receptors that help our bodies understand the force of gravity.  

The playground at one of my schools used to have an elevated edge that went along the perimeter, kind of like a balance beam of sorts.  The preschoolers used to love trying to balance on it and see how far they could walk without falling.  Different children approached this task different ways.  There were some kids who wouldn’t even try it or would attempt but fall off constantly, seemingly unable to get into a good rhythm.  There was the child who would try to walk across but only while tightly holding onto someones hand.  These students all have some difficulty with the vestibular system.  Then there were the students who effortlessly stepped up, walked a few steps, lowered themselves safely down if they felt unsteady and seamlessly got back on once they were balanced.  These students used their well developed vestibular system to help them in this task.

Why is it important?

The vestibular system is one of the first systems to develop in utero.  Think of it as a foundation – all other senses are processed in relation to the vestibular system. When it doesn’t work properly, the way we interpret other sensations may not be accurate.  It is very sensitive, so even small changes in position can have a big impact. 

When the vestibular system is well developed, we can coordinate movement efficiently.  It helps us maintain an upright posture and helps keep your head and neck muscles steady so your eyes can track an object or information in front of you. The vestibular system helps generate muscle tone.  Overall, the vestibular system helps us feel safe and secure in our bodies.  A child with a well developed vestibular system will have no difficulty jumping, climbing, spinning or engaging in activities that require his feet to leave the ground.  

What does it look like when a child is having difficulty with this system?

If a child is having difficulty with the vestibular system, he may display some behaviors that can impact his ability to learn or perform important daily routines.  In general, we can overrespond, underrespond or seek sensory input.  Check out this post for an overview of those terms.

Some children may overrespond or avoid vestibular input.  These are the kids who dislike swinging, climbing, or any activity where their feet might be off the ground.  We sometimes use the term ‘gravitational insecurity’.  These are the kids who tend to walk around the playground instead of engaging with any of the equipment.  They will not be first in line for the roller coasters at the amusement park either! They may get motion sickness easily and they hate leaning head back to get hair washed.  I am totally a vestibular avoider – especially when it comes to spinning!

Some children may underrespond to vestibular input.  These students may have low muscle tone and may fatigue quickly.  They may have a hard time sitting upright or they may slump on their desks.  They may bump into things and appear uncoordinated.  

Then there are the students who seek vestibular input.  They love climbing, swinging, spinning, being turned upside down.  As babies these are the kids that loved the baby swing and needed constant movement to calm down.  In the classroom, they may have a hard time sitting still in their chair or on the carpet.

 

How can I incorporate vestibular activities into my day?

There are so many ways you can incorporate vestibular activities into your day.  If you are trying to decide if an activity targets the vestibular system, consider if the activity requires movement.  If it does, you are on the right track.   Certain vestibular activities may help calm the body and some may be more alerting.  Here are some ideas to get you started!

  • Scooter activities (try having child on tummy and also sitting)
  • Movement of any kind!  Dancing, Go Noodle Videos, touch your toes….anything!
  • Go to the playground!  Slides, swings, bridges, ladders, see saw…these all provide vestibular input.
  • Swinging – in general, back and forth swinging is calming to the nervous system.
  • Spinning – be very careful with spinning!  It can be very alerting to the nervous system and can cause unwanted responses.
  • Jump on a trampoline, jumping jacks, hopscotch
  • Yoga
  • Walking on a balance beam
  • Running or walking

What other tools can help?  

Sometimes, a child may use a tool to help get the input he needs, especially a sensory seeker. Usually a child can continue to participate in the academic task at hand while using these tools. Some examples for the vestibular system include:

  • Ball chair
  • Sit on therapy ball
  • Rocking chair
  • Hokki Stool/T stool
  • Move n Sit Cushions
  • Bouncy Bands (tie theraband around the desk legs)

In summary, the vestibular system is another hidden sense that is an important component for the efficient completion of daily tasks.  It provides the foundation for which all other sensations are processed and understood!    When you think of the vestibular system, think of balance and movement. Share your favorite vestibular activities or tools you use in your classroom or home!

Reference: Sensory Integration and the Child by Jean Ayres.

This post is for informational purposes only.  The information provided is general in nature. Please contact your occupational therapist for specific questions regarding your child/student.

Katie McKenna, MS, OTR/L
Katie McKenna, MS, OTR/L

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