The Vestibular System


The vestibular system is one of the most important systems we have.  While it is very tiny in nature, what it does for us is nothing short of amazing.

Children are sensory creatures.  From the time they are babies they learn about the world through their bodies.  You may have heard the term “learn to move and move to learn.”  It is essential for children to move in order to learn all sorts of things.

It is the system that provides the necessary contributions to our sense of balance and spatial awareness. It works in conjunction with our visual and proprioceptive systems in order for the brain to process the necessary information.

First, let’s see what the vestibular system does and why it is so important.

Takeaways:

  • The vestibular system acts like a traffic control officer.  If it isn’t working, things can go very wrong
  • Movement stimulates this system
  • Sitting still takes the highest form of balance
  • Children concentrate better when they are moving

Anything where the head tilts or moves is going to be more intense for the vestibular system.  Be careful with things like spinning, hanging upside down, fast movements from low to fast.  If a child has an immature vestibular system, these movements will cause them discomfort.  Start slowly  and gradually progress with the level of intensity.

If a child has a middle ear infection, this also will compromise the vestibular system, so be guided by your child’s level of comfort.

Stimulating the Vestibular System

Learn To Move, Move To Learn
To stimulate the vestibular system is all about movement.  No doubt the children you care for already move a lot but different types of movement are important as they convey different types of information to the brain.

Every time you try a different movement, the brain makes new connections or neural pathways.  But doing it once isn’t enough.  You need to repetition for those pathways to become strong so the brain keeps those particular connections.

There are different movements that correspond with different age groups. For instance, a 1 year old will not be jumping yet and a baby can’t skip. So here are some age appropriate ideas. Each age adds additional activities on top of the one for the previous age.

0 – 1 Year Olds

  • Sitting in a rocking chair
  • Rocking and bouncing while sitting on a yoga ball (try side to side too)
  • Rocking in a hammock
  • Swaying or slowly dancing to music
  • Riding a rocking horse
  • Rocking in a swing
  • Swinging in a blanket swing (have child lay in blanket and have two adults each hold an end and lift to swing back and forth)
  • Skipping (in the arms of an adult)
  • Galloping (in the arms of an adult)
  • Running (in the arms of an adult)
  • Riding a see-saw (with adult)
  • Jumping (in the arms of an adult)
  • Bouncing in a bouncer

1 – 2 Year Olds

  • Hanging upside down (from playground equipment or over a couch/bed – obviously supervised)
  • Rocking back and forth to Row, Row, Row, Your Boat with a partner
  • Spinning in large circles on a tire swing (Spinning is extremely powerful vestibular input but work with your child’s level of comfort)
  • Riding a scooter board (Try while sitting and laying on belly)
  • Somersaults
  • Walking across a balance beam (may need help balancing)
  • Playing leap frog
  • Moving across monkey bars
  • Riding a see-saw
  • Wheel-barrow walking
  • Standing upside down with feet up against wall (with assistance)
  • Walking on a suspended bridge
  • Rough-housing
  • Sliding down slides
  • Jumping (try on a couch, bed, bouncy house, or trampoline for more intense input)
  • Riding a bike/scooter
  • Riding push toys/bikes/scooters down a hill
  • Singing and hand motions for “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”

2 – 3 Year Olds

  • Swaying or slowly dancing to music
  • Yoga (especially inversion poses)
  • Sitting on a gliding chair or couch
  • Hanging upside down (from playground equipment or over a couch/bed)
  • Skipping
  • Galloping
  • Running
  • Somersaults
  • Cartwheels
  • Walking across a balance beam
  • Jumping rope
  • Playing leap frog
  • Moving across monkey bars
  • Riding a see-saw
  • Riding rollerblades/roller skates
  • Playing twister

3 – 5 Year olds

  • Rocking and bouncing while sitting on a yoga ball (try side to side too)
  • Rocking in a hammock
  • Moving across monkey bars
  • Riding a see-saw

A Deeper Look at the Vestibular System

So we know that the vestibular system is like a traffic cop.  It is the first sensory system to get all the information that bombards our brain and its job is to direct it to all the other centres

So what is the vestibular system? The vestibular system is one of our 8 senses.  Yes, 8… not 5 like you have always heard about.

Our 8 senses are:

  • Hearing
  • Sight
  • Taste
  • Touch
  •  Smell
  •  Proprioception
  •  Vestibular System
  •  Interoception

These senses along with the primitive reflexes form the base of the pyramid of sensory learning.

As you can see, the central nervous system is at the very base with our senses and primitive reflexes next.  This is how children learn.  Babies are very much in this first quadrant for quite awhile with skills developing during that first year.

Starting as babies, we develop from the bottom up, known as “bottom up processing”.  Higher brain functions come once the foundations are laid and the vestibular is at the forefront of those foundations because of its many roles.

The vestibular system is made up of 3 semi-circular canals, each of which have fluid in them.  It is joined to the cochlea and lives in the middle ear.

We have 2 vestibules (one on each side of the head).

Every time we move our head a certain way, we stimulate one of these semi-circular canals

Suggested Activities:

This activity is great to have in your toolkit for all sorts of children. It is great to stimulate all growing brains but fantastic for helping agitated brains calm down. If you have a child suffering from night terrors, or in a meltdown, doing this will bring the brain down in stages. I have had parents use this and what would normally take 3 hours, they have accomplished in about 15 minutes.

You are going to try rocking but 3 different ways.  Each way is going to stimulate an individual semi-circular canal.

Rocking is something that we innately do with children but the benefits are enormous.  It not only stimulates the vestibular system, when you rock 3 ways, it brings the brain down, and has a claming effect.

Put on some calming music and rock one way for awhile, then change to the other 2.  Don’t change too quickly and the rocking needs to be slow, controlled and rhythmical.

Take note of the direction in relation to your child.  If you are holding them sideways, and you rock forwards and back, it will actually be side to side for them.

ROCKING 3 WAYS:

  1. Front to back
  2. Side to side
  3. Circular motion

The first 2 you probably do instinctively, but the third one is just as important.  While sitting, make a circle with your body, moving from the waist up.

If you need some music to rock to, here are some great lullabies:

Latvian Lullaby
Brahm’s Lullaby
Disney Lullabies

Diana Cameron

Diana has over 32 years in the early childhood industry and has been a guest lecturer and workshop facilitator both nationally and internationally for the past 20 years. She has a passion for inspiring educators to use creativity and imagination in their teaching.

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