Sensory Systems Explained: What is Interoception?

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Interoception is a term that is not commonly known, but it plays a vital role in early childhood development. In preschool-aged children, interoception refers to the ability to understand and interpret the sensations that arise from within the body, such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, and the need to use the bathroom. The development of interoception is crucial for children’s overall health, well-being, self-awareness, and ability to regulate their emotions and behavior.

Research has shown that interoceptive awareness is linked to several positive outcomes, including better emotional regulation, improved attention, and enhanced social skills.

Preschool is a critical period for the development of interoceptive awareness, as it is during this time that children are beginning to develop a sense of self and are learning to regulate their emotions. 

Children who have a strong sense of interoception are better able to recognize and respond to their internal body sensations, leading to improved physical and emotional well-being.

The Eight Sensory Systems

Did you know that we have EIGHT sensory systems?! Most people only know the top five. This blog post is part of a series in which we delve into all eight sensory systems.

In addition to the interoceptive system we have seven other sensory systems. They are:

So let’s dive deeper into interoception!

How Does Interoception Impact Function?

Interoception can be thought of as a mind-body connection. A well-developed interoceptive sense allows children to understand their physical self and respond appropriately to their needs for comfort and well-being.

The ability to understand and address our body’s needs is an important factor in our self-sufficiency. Difficulty in understanding our bodily needs can make everyday activities significantly more challenging.

Here are some ways in which interoception impacts function in early childhood:

Emotional Regulation: Interoception is closely linked to emotional regulation, which is the ability to manage and express emotions in a healthy way. Children who are able to sense and interpret their internal signals, such as tense muscles when angry or a nauseous stomach when anxious, are better equipped to regulate their emotions. This can help children identify and communicate their feelings and needs effectively, which reduces the likelihood of tantrums, meltdowns, or emotional outbursts.

Attention and Focus: Interoception is also linked to attention and focus. Children who have good interoceptive skills are better able to focus on tasks for longer periods. They are also more aware of their physical needs, such as hunger and thirst, which can impact their ability to pay attention in the classroom.

Body Awareness: Interoception helps children develop body awareness (also known as proprioception), which is the understanding of their own body and how it moves. This awareness helps children develop motor skills, such as balance, coordination, and spatial orientation.

Self-Care Skills: Interoception is essential for developing self-care skills, such as eating, drinking, and toileting. Children who have good interoceptive skills are better able to recognize when they are hungry, thirsty, or need to use the bathroom. This ability is essential for maintaining good physical health.

Social Interaction: Interoception also impacts social interaction. Children who have good interoceptive skills are better able to understand their own emotions and the emotions of others. This understanding helps children develop empathy and social skills, such as sharing and taking turns.

How to Develop and Improve Interoception

In order to support the development of interoception in preschool-aged children, parents and educators can take a proactive approach.

Here are some ways to enhance interoception in preschool-aged children:

Sensory Play: Sensory play activities can help preschoolers become more aware of their bodily sensations. Encourage them to engage in activities such as playing with playdough, sensory bins, exploring textures with their fingers, or engaging in water play. This type of play helps children become more aware of their bodily sensations. 

Mindfulness Activities: Mindfulness activities such as deep breathing, meditation, and other self-reflective activities can help preschoolers tune in to their bodily sensations and increase their body awareness.

Encourage Self-Talk: Encourage preschoolers to talk about their bodily sensations and emotions. Ask them how their body feels and help them label the sensations they are experiencing. This can help them develop a better understanding of their internal cues. For example, if a child is hungry, an adult might ask, “Do you feel hungry? What does that feel like in your body?”

Modeling Behavior: Modeling behavior is another way to support the development of interoception in preschoolers. As adults, we can model appropriate responses to bodily sensations and emotions in front of children. This can help preschoolers learn how to label their own internal cues and respond appropriately to them. For example, if we are feeling stressed, we can model deep breathing or other relaxation techniques to help preschoolers learn how to manage their own stress.

Self-Care Activities: Engage preschoolers in self-care activities such as brushing their teeth. Encourage them to notice how their body feels during these activities and to respond to any sensations they experience.

Engage in Physical Activities: Engage preschoolers in physical activities that require them to be aware of their body’s movements, sensations, and breathing such as dancing or yoga. This can help them develop body awareness and improve their interoceptive skills.

Provide a Calm and Safe Environment: Preschoolers need a calm and safe environment to tune in to their internal cues. Create a space such as a calm down corner that is quiet, relaxing, and free from distractions that preschoolers can easily access. 

Emotion Based Games: Playing games that require preschoolers to label emotions can also be a helpful way to develop their interoception skills. Emotion-based games can help children recognize and identify their own emotions and the emotions of others. These games can be fun and engaging ways to teach children about their internal cues and how to respond to them appropriately. We have some fantastic “I Feel” emotion playdough mats that can help you get started with exploring emotion based games into your daily activities.

Incorporating interoception into preschool education can have long-term benefits for children’s overall well-being. By developing a strong sense of interoceptive awareness at an early age, children are better equipped to manage their emotions, make healthy choices, and navigate social situations. As such, educators and caregivers should prioritize interoception as an essential component of early childhood education.

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