Updated: November 20, 2023
The vestibular and proprioceptive systems use sensory input to connect the body to the brain. These senses help the brain and body balance, coordinate movement, and respond to the environment.
- The vestibular sense helps us balance and be aware of our body’s movement and speed.
- The proprioceptive sense tells us where our body is in space and how much strength to use.
- Swinging, tag, jumping, rough-and-tumble play, and play dough activities stimulate the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
As a developmental therapist, I partner with occupational therapists to bring appropriate vestibular and proprioceptive sensory-seeking play into therapy sessions. I want to make this information accessible to you, too!
Knowing the basics of these sensory systems makes it easier for parents and educators to recognize problems and support development. It helps us to understand and appreciate children’s behavior and silly antics.
What is Vestibular Input?
The vestibular sense, or vestibular system, is our sense of balance and how fast our bodies are moving.
- Shifting weight to balance the body
- Sensing when and how to slow down
- Spinning or turning around without falling or getting disoriented
Vestibular input happens in the inner ear and tracks our head movements. Fluid moving across tiny hair cells in our inner ears gives the brain information about movements.
Vestibular Sense Examples
- Adjusting body to walk across a balance beam
- Playing tag and slowing down before running into someone
- Dancing and spinning without falling down
Children seek out movements like spinning, rolling, flipping, and turning upside-down. This type of play is a natural instinct to stimulate the vestibular system.
Vestibular System Stressors
Some generally accepted “normal” parts of childhood put stress on the vestibular system, including:
- Prolonged sitting
- Contained play in bouncy seats and exersaucers
- Limitations on sensory-seeking play
What is Proprioceptive Input?
The proprioceptive sense, or proprioceptive system, is the sense of where our body is in space. It lets us know what direction we are moving, where the parts of our body are located, or how close we are to an obstacle.
- Body awareness or knowing the location of body parts without relying on sight
- Navigating obstacles without relying on sight
- Understanding personal strength and the force required to interact with the environment
The proprioceptive system also lets us know how much force to use when handling objects. Proprioceptive input occurs in our muscles and joints.
Proprioceptive Sense Examples
- Knowing your foot is under your body while sitting
- Moving around tables and chairs without bumping into them
- Setting a cup down gently on the table without spilling
Children seek out movements like wrapping up in blankets, squeezing toys or play dough, and jumping. This type of play is a natural instinct to stimulate the proprioceptive system.
Vestibular and Proprioceptive Sensory-Seeking Activities
As parents and educators, we can observe children’s behavior to figure out their sensory needs. Their actions tell us if they are seeking more or less vestibular or proprioceptive input.
The activities listed below are safe, appropriate ways to help children develop their sensory systems. You may need to model these activities for children or modify them to a child’s skill level.
Vestibular Input Activities
When it comes to vestibular sensory-seeking activities, it helps to consider actions that will move the fluid in the inner ear, such as:
- Tag or chase
- Hanging from monkey bars
- Jumping on cushions or a trampoline
- Yoga poses
- Spinning and dancing
- Somersaults or rolling
- Balance beams or balance stepping stones
Proprioceptive Input Activities
Regarding proprioceptive sensory-seeking activities, I recommend thinking about actions that put force on the joints and muscles (small and large).
- Rough house play
- Catching and throwing
- Rolling up into blanket “burritos”
- Pushing or pulling heavy objects such as baskets, buckets, or wagons
- Squeezing and smashing play dough
- Sensory bins
- Open-ended art
- Limbs crossing midline: fingerplays, rhythm sticks, “sword fighting”
I recommend giving children uninterrupted time and freedom to do these activities. This lets them build up trust and understanding in their bodies. You may need to redirect a child from inappropriate sensory-seeking activities to these ideas multiple times before they are successful.
Try to resist stopping them unless they are in true danger. Learn more about creating safe and stimulating play spaces in my guide to risk-taking play.
The vestibular and proprioceptive senses are important for how our bodies process information. If a child has trouble with these senses, it might show in different ways, like:
- Clumsy Movements
- Having a hard time moving smoothly and with coordination
- Playing Too Rough
- Playing a bit too rough, even when trying to be gentle
- Big, Intense Motions
- Doing things with too much force, such as unintentionally slamming objects on a table or ripping through paper while drawing
- Seeking Sensory Stimulation
- Persistent engagement in spinning, rocking, or climbing
If a child is facing developmental challenges, their actions and behaviors will often reflect it. This could mean actively seeking sensory stimulation or avoiding activities that feel overwhelming.
Recognizing these behaviors is crucial. They could be signs of an underlying issue. Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s sensory processing or behavior.
Kids need plenty of unstructured, sensory-rich play to build a strong brain and body connection. And understanding how the vestibular and proprioceptive systems link the body to the brain gives insight into a child’s growth and needs.
I hope you feel more confident in interpreting your child’s behavior and guide you in choosing the right steps and activities for their development.
Check out my Types of Play article for a comprehensive understanding of childhood play. Elevate your approach to parenting or teaching with expert insights and practical tips.