When we think of the senses, the classic five usually come to mind: Touch, sight, taste, smell and hearing. There are two other important senses, though, and they don’t always get the attention they should!
While the classic five are external senses, the proprioceptive sense and vestibular system are internal; instead of processing information from outside of the body, they process information from inside the body.
The proprioceptive sense uses information primarily from the skin, muscles and joints to help us understand where our body parts are in relation to each other, what our body parts are doing, and how much effort is required to do different things. Let’s take a closer look at these roles, and then we’ll explore how your little one’s proprioceptive sense develops.
The Roles of the Proprioceptive Sense
This sense is responsible for:
- Coordinated movement — When you scratch an elbow, use a fork to eat, or walk across a room, proprioception is the reason you know where your elbow is without having to look at your body, can put the fork in your mouth without stabbing your face, and walk without tripping over your own feet. We even rely on proprioception to tell us how to move our jaws and tongue to eat, or how to use our fingers to type without looking at the keys.
- Using the correct amount of force for different things — Proprioception allows us to use just the right amount of effort for countless tasks, like lifting a heavy glass without dropping it, grasping a paper cup without crushing it, throwing a basketball hard enough to reach the basket, writing with a pencil without breaking the tip, and pushing buttons through button holes.
Proprioception and Development
Proprioceptive development is driven by movement, and works with a baby’s sense of touch as she interacts with her surroundings. It starts with her first movements in the womb: When her arm presses against the uterine wall, her proprioceptive and tactile receptors are activated and she learns about her body parts and how they move.
Once she’s born, every one of her movements helps her form a map of her body. Whether it’s being massaged, kicking her feet against her car seat, playing on her tummy, or exploring her face with her hands, she continuously adds information to her body map about the relative position on her body parts and how to use them.
Because we love tummy time, let’s use it to paint a picture of proprioception: Spending time on her belly, she learns how to lift her head and turn it from side to side to look around. She learns how to position her limbs and how hard to push against the floor to do mini push-ups, shift her weight, and eventually roll over. Enticed by objects around her, she learns to stretch her arms to reach them, coordinate her hands to grasp them, and squeeze hard enough to pick them up.
This learning continues as she practices using her body in increasingly complex ways to move and accomplish tasks.
Sometimes children have difficulty processing proprioceptive input. They may constantly trip, bump into things, or appear uncoordinated or lethargic. They may consistently play too rough, crave intense physical activity, or use too much force. It can be difficult to spot proprioceptive dysfunction in toddlerhood, because little ones often appear very active or uncoordinated. If you have questions about your child’s sensory development, check in with your pediatrician or a pediatric occupational therapist for guidance.
Supporting Your Child’s Proprioceptive Development
The key to nurturing proprioceptive development is providing your little one with lots of opportunities to move her body and interact with her surroundings, unrestricted by baby equipment. Virtually any of our BabySparks activities involve proprioceptive learning.
Two other areas of development that are essential for movement and accomplishing tasks are the vestibular system and motor planning. Click through the links to learn more.