Here is a quick guide to the vestibular system, as well as some fun and simple vestibular activities to try with young children.
The Seven Senses
The five basic senses of taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell are each related to sense organs that communicate information to the brain.
The human body has two other sensory systems that are not so obvious but are equally important for a child’s sensory development.
The proprioceptive system relates to sensory input through joints and muscles, which helps the body adjust effectively while making various types of movements.
Proprioceptive activities include jumping, carrying, pushing, pulling, colouring and writing.
But there is one other important sensory system in the body that is also related to movement and helps all the other senses work effectively. That is the vestibular system.
What is the Vestibular System?
The inner ear has tiny sensory organs that communicate with the brain to control balance and eye movement.
The sensations detected by even slight changes in the head’s position are considered vestibular input.
This important system helps with balance, eye-hand coordination and many aspects of self-care.
Children with overly sensitive vestibular systems seem clumsy, often avoid movement like swinging, and have trouble learning to climb.
On the other hand, some kids seek out vestibular sensory input through intense movements like whirling and spinning, in order to stimulate an underactive system.
Examples of Using the Vestibular System
How do you stimulate the vestibular system?
All types of activities that move the head in different positions are helpful and often suggested by occupational therapists.
Vertical movements like jumping and bouncing are commonly used. Swinging on playground swings or hanging and swinging from a monkey bar can be calming for the vestibular system.
35 Vestibular Activities for Children
Here are some vestibular activity movements to try at home and at school, both indoors and outside.
1. Simon Says
Play an old-fashioned game of Simon Says with actions that involve plenty of position changes.
Allow kids to spin in your office-style chairs.
For helicopter spinning, they hold their arms out and spin in place.
“Sit n Spin” and tire swings are other options.
3. Obstacle Course
Set up cones or form a figure 8 on the surface for children to run in and out of, changing directions often.
4. Plan a Parade
Instead of parading on cement, children march on an uneven surface to stimulate their balance.
5. Balance Beams
Walk on balance beams or just strips of tape on the floor as a tightrope.
6. Log Roll
Lying on the floor or ground, children pretend to be logs while rolling around or down a hill.
7. Exercise Ball
Lie on the tummy to rock back and forth or bounce on the ball.
8. Movement to Music
Kids move along with some favourite tunes, such as rocking to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or following all the motions for “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
9. Running Games
Play games that promote running, such as tag, relay races or hide and seek.
Jump on trampolines or furniture, with parent permission, of course!
11. Novelty Walking
Challenge kids to walk like various animals or partner up for wheelbarrow walking.
Equipment on the playground offers a wealth of opportunities for vestibular activity.
13. Floor Play
Perfection is not the goal when kids try out cartwheels and somersaults for upside-down experiences.
Call for regular movement breaks, allow kids to stand instead of sitting at tables, offer alternative seating like therapy balls, and try an indoor crawling obstacle course.
Downwards dog, horse and monkey pose offer stimulation; use the mouse pose for calming.
16. Varied Locomotion
Challenge kids to skip, gallop and run from one point to another.
Lead organized exercises for kids, such as jumping jacks and jogging in place.
18. Jump Rope
Children jump rope individually or over a rope held by other children at both ends.
Controlled rough play is beneficial to encourage plenty of bodily movement.
20. Vehicle Riding
Kids ride sleds, bikes or scooters down a hill or along a curved pathway.
Slide down a hill in a cardboard box.
21. Floor Games
Play games like “Twister” and “Twangled” that require bending and leaning.
22. Hop Like a Frog
Kids act as frogs, hopping around and catching various objects as “flies.”
Provide roller skates/rollerblades or ice skates for movement benefits.
24. Put on a Circus
Kids move like animals and people who perform in a circus.
25. Build a Road
Challenge children to move like construction machines for building roads: pavers, jackhammers, wrecking balls and bulldozers.
Pillows come in handy as materials to be moved.
26. Water Play
Splashing around in a lake, pool, or even safely in the tub offers a fun sensory water play activity.
27. Drawing it Large
Offer coloured chalk for children to make large drawings on sidewalks, patios or driveways.
28. Swinging Beyond the Playground
Kids swing in a hammock or in a blanket with adults holding the ends.
Play hopscotch on a grid drawn with chalk outdoors or made indoors with tape on the floor.
30. Navigating the Stairs
Walking up the stairs is good, and crawling up the stairs could be even better!
31. Tippy Toes
Challenge kids to walk a certain route on tiptoes or to stand still on tiptoes for a set amount of time.
Play different types of music to encourage varied types and speeds of movement.
33. Catch It
Encourage throwing and catching various items, such as balls, flying discs, pillows and bean bags.
34. Organized Sport
Try lessons in gymnastics, dancing, horseback riding and karate.
35. Monkey on My Back!
Invite your child to climb on your back, while you crawl, rock back and forth, change directions and gently try to get that monkey off your back.
Similar to proprioceptive activities, you can expect various responses from different kids, depending on their sensory needs.
Watch out for any signs of distress and call a halt to any activity that causes a negative reaction.
Children can have fun while exercising their vestibular systems!
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Monday 6th of March 2023
I have used this article to educate Kindy families of the importance of the vestibular system. It's fabulous.
Monday 6th of March 2023
I'm glad this was helpful! Thanks Donna.