Sensory Systems Explained: What is Proprioception?

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Do you ever wonder how your child’s body knows where it is in space, or how they are able to coordinate their movements so effortlessly?

The answer lies in a sensory system called proprioception. This system plays a critical role in our daily lives, especially for children as they develop important motor skills and learn how to navigate their surroundings.

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 proprioceptive system we have seven other sensory systems. They are:

What Is Proprioception in Simple Terms?

Proprioception is a crucial sensory system that helps us perceive the position, movement, and force of our body. This system allows us to perform coordinated movements, maintain balance and posture, and interact with objects in our environment.

While most people may not be familiar with the term proprioception, it is an essential aspect of early childhood development.

The proprioceptive system is responsible for detecting changes in muscle length, joint angle, and tension. This information is sent to the brain, which uses it to regulate muscle tone and movement. Through this process, children develop an innate sense of their body and its movements, which is essential for their overall development.

While proprioception is a critical sense that allows us to understand where our body is in space and how it is moving, some children may struggle with proprioceptive dysfunction. This dysfunction can manifest in a variety of ways and impact a child’s development and daily life.

What are the Signs of Proprioceptive Dysfunction?

Proprioceptive dysfunction can manifest in various ways in childhood. Some common signs of proprioceptive dysfunction in early childhood include:

Poor body awareness: Children with proprioceptive dysfunction may have difficulty understanding where their body is in space, leading to clumsiness, balance issues, using too much or too little force, poor posture, and uncoordinated movement.

Delayed gross motor skills: Children with proprioceptive dysfunction may struggle with gross motor skills such as running, jumping, and climbing, and may be slower to develop these skills compared to their peers.

Struggling fine motor skills: Children with proprioceptive dysfunction may have difficulties with fine motor skills such as tying shoelaces, handwriting, buttoning clothes, or using utensils.

Unbalanced sensory input: Children with proprioceptive dysfunction may be sensory seeking, meaning they seek out excessive sensory input, such as bumping/crashing into objects or jumping from high places, to provide the sensory feedback they need. They may also experience the exact opposite where they avoid receiving proprioceptive information and may experience things such as being cautious in play, disliking having tight clothing, and having poor postural control.

Emotional and behavioral challenges: Children with proprioceptive dysfunction may experience frustration, anxiety, or other behaviors and emotional challenges due to their difficulties with sensory processing and coordination.

It is important to note that these signs may vary and may not necessarily indicate proprioceptive disorder on their own. If you suspect that your child may have proprioceptive dysfunction, it’s important to seek a professional evaluation from an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing.

Whether your child is experiencing proprioceptive dysfunction or not, proprioceptive activities are beneficial to implement into early childhood routines. 

When the proprioceptors are stimulated, which are receptors responsible for detecting movements and body position, they provide information to the arousal center of the brain. By engaging in proprioceptive activities throughout the day, children can receive the necessary input to help them maintain an optimal state for learning and focused attention.

Proprioceptive Sensory Activities for Kids

Need some ideas on how to incorporate proprioceptive input into your child’s play? These physical exercises and creative play ideas can help young children challenge their proprioceptive sensory system. 

  1. Crawling through a tunnel or under a blanket fort
  2. Yoga
  3. Wall push-ups
  4. Animal walks 
  5. Pushing or pulling heavy objects, such as a wagon or toy box
  6. Tug-of-war with a friend or playing with a resistance band 
  7. Balancing on one foot or on a balance beam
  8. Rolling on the ground or on an exercise ball
  9. Climbing on a playground or obstacle course
  10. Playing catch with a ball or other object
  11. Hopping on one foot or doing jumping exercises and games, like hopscotch or jumping jacks 
  12. Tossing bean bags or other small objects into a basket or target
  13. Dancing or doing other rhythmic movement activities
  14. Carrying heavy objects
  15. Doing floor exercises
  16. Tumbling or somersaulting
  17. Skipping or galloping
  18. Riding a bike or tricycle
  19. Jumping on a trampoline 
  20. Making and playing with homemade playdough or slime
  21. Playing with sensory toys, such as fidget spinners or stress balls
  22. Running or sprinting short distances
  23. Wheelbarrow races 
  24. Doing jumping squats or other plyometric exercises
  25. Going on a nature walk and exploring different textures and terrains

Additionally, proprioception plays a role in the development of cognitive and social-emotional skills. You can easily work in cognitive and social-emotional skills with proprioceptive play. Some examples are:

Simon Says: This classic game challenges children to follow instructions that involve proprioceptive movements such as hopping, jumping, or spinning.

Yoga: Yoga poses can help preschoolers develop balance, coordination, and body awareness while also promoting relaxation and emotional regulation. Find all the yoga ideas we have shared on site here.

Twister: This game requires children to follow directions and move their bodies in various proprioceptive ways to keep their balance.

Sensory Play: Playing with tactile materials like playdough, sand, or slime can help preschoolers develop sensory skills and emotional regulation.

Dance Parties: Dancing to music can help preschoolers develop rhythm and coordination while also fostering emotional expression.

Obstacle Courses: Creating an obstacle course that includes proprioceptive activities like jumping, crawling, and balancing can help preschoolers develop motor skills, spatial awareness, and problem-solving abilities.

Skipping Rope: Jumping rope challenges preschoolers to develop teamwork, timing, coordination, and proprioception.

Wall Painting: Painting on a vertical surface like a wall or easel challenges preschoolers to follow the rules and develop cooperation, upper body strength, coordination, and fine motor skills.

Tug-of-War: Playing tug-of-war with a partner challenges preschoolers to develop teamwork, cooperation, and proprioceptive strength.

Sensory Bins: Filling a bin with sensory materials like rice, beans, or water and providing tools for scooping, pouring, and exploring can help preschoolers develop fine motor skills, tactile awareness, and emotional regulation. Find our Ultimate Guide to Sensory Bins here.

Animal Charades: Playing animal charades challenges preschoolers to use their bodies to express emotions and mimic animal movements.

Sensory Walks: Walking barefoot on different surfaces like grass, sand, or stones can challenge preschoolers to develop sensory awareness, balance, and coordination.

Relay Races: Participating in relay races challenges preschoolers to develop teamwork, coordination, and proprioceptive strength.

Scooter Boards: Using a scooter board challenges preschoolers to follow the rules and develop core strength, balance, and coordination.

Brain Breaks: Incorporating short proprioceptive activities like wall push-ups, chair squats, or jumping jacks as brain breaks during academic activities can help preschoolers develop cognitive abilities and attention spans.

There are so many different ways you can incorporate proprioceptive sensory activities into your child’s daily life!

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