“Back in the olden days” educators focused much attention on the FIVE fundamental senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. These were always pretty straight forward and easy for children to identify, but as the field of early childhood development has grown and research has deepened, two additional senses have taken their respectable place in this fundamental line up: the Vesibular and Proprioception senses. This blog will focus on the Vestibular Sense, but just as a peek, proprioception is, essentially, the awareness of your body and its parts without purposeful attention to them. For example, when you reach for something up high, you reach your arm up but you also stand on your tippy toes to maximize your height. These two actions combined accomplish a single physical task without cognitive planning of execution for individual parts of hands and feet…proprioception.
The vestibular sense is the ability to develop balancing skills and an awareness of the body in space. It is the first sense to develop in utero. Derived from the word, vestibule, meaning a pathway between an outer and inner or main section, this sense is the vehicle that drives a child’s need for physical fun, adventure and challenge. Swinging, hanging up-side-down, spinning in circles, doing somersaults, and dancing…all of these physical feats exercise the vestibular sense by providing information about their body’s abilities, limitations and the space needed to move about safely. The tiny hairs in the inner ear move when fluid in the ear moves with the body, sending the eyes and brain messages about how the body is oriented and how to accommodate that orientation while remaining safe. Over time these collective messages can manifest into improved balance, adaptability to environmental changes, increased awareness and self-preservation, and improved attention.
It is important that children are provided plenty of opportunities to challenge themselves physically and be active on various terrain so that their sense of balance and personal space improve, and injuries are better mitigated. This recommendation touches on the January 2019 Blog, Teamwork and the Role of Failure for Cognitive Growth in Young Children, because in it I discussed how important it is to let your children attempt and fail at many activities so they gain understanding of how to use their minds, bodies and social skills to be successful. Without skirmishes with peers, children cannot learn to negotiate. Without bumps and bruises, children cannot learn to be cautious. Without failure, success is meaningless.
Although it may make your heart come to a full stop watching your child spin until they fall on the floor, or hang up-side-down from the monkey bars, it is crucial that children be allowed, or even encouraged, to take those risks and exercise this vital sense… just stay close enough to catch them if they fall and hug them when they succeed!
Parent Tip: Allow your child to be barefoot and active on various terrains (mud, grass, sand, water, etc.) to improve precision with their step and, thus, develop that vestibular sense early on!
VP of Education