5 Senses, 6 Senses… or should it be 7?
Did you know that children of different ages and nationalities have been reported to be frequently falling off their chairs at school? Why are more and more children finding it hard to hold a pencil and lack the stamina to write, for even short periods of time? Why do children lose focus and have shorter attention spans? What has contributed to a huge rise in attention deficit disorders? It may sound like an unreal scenario, but unfortunately, this is the daily reality and challenge faced by many teachers across the country.
So, what has changed over the decades, to make simple, everyday tasks more of a physical challenge for young people today? Here are 3 of the contributing factors affecting children today.
The Vestibular System
“The vestibular system, in vertebrates, is part of the inner ear. In most mammals, the vestibular system is the sensory system that provides the leading contribution to the sense of balance and spatial orientation for the purpose of coordinating movement with balance.”
– Wikipedia 2019
Although not often talked about, the vestibular system, located inside our inner ears, plays a major role in our everyday lives. Responsible for helping us to maintain our sense of balance and spatial awareness, it also helps to define our level of focus and attention, affects the extent of our visual awareness of the world and can even help us to control our emotions.
How does it work?
“Inside your inner ear are little hair cells. And we need to move in all different directions so that fluid moves back and forth and stimulates those hair cells, and that develops the vestibular sense. That sense is key to all the other senses. If that’s not working right, it can affect everything,” says Angela Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist. https://www.stack.com/a/the-shocking-phenomenon-that-shows-just-how-movement-starved-modern-kids-really-are It is very important as it is the most connected sensory system in our body. It works alongside our other sensory systems (including the proprioceptive sense), enabling us to use our eyes effectively and process sounds in our environment.
According to childreninspiredbyyoga.com “Our vestibular system is the first sensory system to develop in the womb. When the foetus is only 5 months old its vestibular system is amazingly well developed. The vestibular system provides the growing foetal brain with a whole host of sensory information as the foetus is rocked back and forth by its mother’s movements. After birth, our vestibular system is often likened to the ‘brain’s traffic controller’ for all the sensory information it receives. It sorts and relays incoming sensory information from other sensory organs and passes it onto the various sensory regions of our brain.”
So, in a nutshell, the vestibular system is stimulated and developed by the movement of the body in different directions, at a variety of speeds. Past generations, barefoot and adventurous, experienced oodles of unstructured play outside, resulting in them naturally receiving all the sensory stimulation they needed through their bare feet! Sadly, the freedom to play and explore outdoors has not only diminished over recent years, due to worries over children’s safety, it has also lessened due to sheer lack of time in busy lives and the increased technological usage globally. More and more children are wearing footwear to decrease the chances of injury or infections, but at the same time reducing their daily sensory experiences; many children will never be allowed to run barefoot or climb a tree in their lives!
Children are also becoming more static in their daily lives, due to the increased availability and use of tablets and mobile phones etc. How many children today get to enjoy the sensation of rolling down a hill or hanging upside down from the monkey bars? Submersed in virtual worlds, children are missing out on opportunities for real-life action, reducing their need to move around in different directions on a regular basis. This is a worrying trend, as good development of the vestibular system relies upon rapid shifts in a change of direction and speed of movement… not sedentary, passive behaviour.
As parents, councils and schools have become more risk-averse and adventurous equipment in parks has been on the decline, it’s hardly surprising that children do not get as many chances to naturally develop their vestibular systems leading to a real deficiency of balance, attention and co-ordination skills.
As educational play experts, the Schoolscapes’ team understands the important role that regular, outdoor play can have in determining children’s success both at school and in their lives to come. We aim to reverse these trends, with our outstanding range of outdoor play equipment. Our inspiring, attractive Outdoor Play Designs ensure that children can naturally develop their vestibular systems through fun, active play. Natural timber Play Towers, Adventure Trails and Play Castles all intrinsically incorporate exciting, physical challenge. They encourage children to climb, chase, jump, twist, crawl, spin and stretch, whilst they explore and discover the world around them.
Our original and stimulating playgrounds create ample opportunities for children to challenge and stretch themselves both physically and mentally. Outdoor play creates autonomous individuals, allowing children to safely learn to calculate risks and to invaluably learn from their mistakes, informing future decision making. The installation of a variety of active play components maximises sensory opportunities, providing chances for diverse and vigorous movement. An attractive, modern Inclusive Roundabout provides all children with the possibility of moving at speed, change direction as well as getting dizzy, improving their vestibular systems. An Eagles Nest Swing allows children to safely lay back and swing, as well as opportunities to change level by standing or sitting, and they can even face different directions.
A MUGA (Multi-Use Games Area) creates a versatile all-weather play space, where children can experience moving, changing direction and travelling at different speeds, by engaging in both traditional and original games and sports. This allows leaners to develop a good sense of body awareness and to develop their vestibular systems. The freedom to play and move, increases attention skills too, as movement can help develop areas of the brain that relate to focus.
Participation in physical games also develops children’s visual tracking skills and hand-eye coordination. This helps children to regulate their balance, to catch a ball, track words when reading or to hold a pencil. Resources like a Covered Sandpit, Water Wall, Planters or Construction Station all encourage children to develop their fine motor skills through exploring natural materials and engaging in enjoyable, sensory play. This also helps develop a child’s self-care and independence by teaching them to coordinate both sides of their body in unison.
Childreninspiredbyyoga.com states that “the vestibular system also develops and maintains normal muscle ‘tone’, (our muscles’ ‘state-of-readiness’). At rest, muscle tone will be low, but when we want to move, it will rise in response – otherwise, we would go nowhere! Without a properly functioning vestibular system, a child may find it hard to ‘hold themselves up’ properly. They may opt to lie on the floor instead of sitting up during circle time or lean on their elbow while at their desk. Children may manage this problem of a ‘sleepy vestibular system’ by tending to daydream, or conversely, they may want to move and fidget – as this stimulates their vestibular system.”
Vestibular systems support language development by connecting with our auditory & visual senses. Outdoor Musical Instruments are a great way to encourage children to link the sounds they create and hear to their actions. It provides a fun way to develop their muscles, coordination and sense of space through active, creative play by striking, strumming, plucking to communicate their ideas and emotions.
The vestibular system is also vital to develop self-regulation. Some compare it to the ‘volume control button’ for humans, as speedy up and down or spinning head movements tend to ‘wake us up’ whilst slower, rocking head movements, or keeping the head still, helps us to quieten down.
So, good development of the vestibular sense is crucial for every child’s personal development, as it helps children to be able to work, rest and play with confidence. It develops good balance and concentration skills. Acting like a gyroscope for the body, our vestibular system sends signals to our brain which are linked to how we move, which then ‘informs’ our body’s reaction.
The Proprioceptive Sense
The proprioceptive sense essentially informs us of our body position and is stimulated every time we move. Receptors for this sense are all over our body, within our joints and muscles. Therefore, whenever we lift heavy things, push and pull we really stimulate our body’s proprioceptive sense.
According to Wikipedia 2019, “Proprioception is the sense of self-movement and body position. It is sometimes described as the “sixth sense”. There are multiple types of proprioceptors which are activated during distinct behaviours and encode distinct types of information: limb velocity and movement, load on a limb, and limb limits.”
Cleverly, the body’s central nervous system works to integrate proprioception and other sensory systems, such as vision and the vestibular system, to establish an overall representation of body position, movement, and acceleration.
Squeezing together into an exciting tunnel in a Dino Mound, pushing and pulling an innovative Sand Pendulum to make beautiful patterns, or controlling the mechanical pulley system on a Mini-Construction Station, all aid children to develop their proprioceptive sense.
Climbing and traversing on a Rock Face Climber, Hexagonal Climbing Frame or Andes Climber all create a perfect way to develop children’s joints and muscles, through stimulating, active play. Lifting pots and pans and mixing potions on an outdoors Mud Kitchen, helps children to come accustomed to moving and lifting different weights, through experimental and investigative, messy play.
Stretching and swinging along a Tarzan Traverse or weaving and swerving around the ropes while balancing across the tightrope on a Vertical Rope Weaver are also great ways to develop the proprioceptive sense through active, outdoor play.
Fine Motor Skills
The rise in technology-based play is resulting in children having weaker and less developed motor skills. More time spent on tablets and gaming, rather than in physical play, means children have less chance to build up muscle strength. Therefore, it is widely accepted that the decrease in movement is one of the reasons that children are now lacking both the strength and stamina to hold a pencil comfortably or to write for very long.
Sally Payne, the head paediatric occupational therapist at the Heart of England foundation NHS Trust backs this up saying “Children are not coming into school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago.” “Children coming into school are being given a pencil but are increasingly not be able to hold it because they don’t have the fundamental movement skills.” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/25/children-struggle-to-hold-pencils-due-to-too-much-tech-doctors-say.
Assistant director at the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, Karin Bishop also admits concern. “It is undeniable that technology has changed the world where our children are growing up,” she said. “Whilst there are many positive aspects to the use of technology, there is growing evidence on the impact of more sedentary lifestyles and increasing virtual social interaction, as children spend more time indoors online and less time physically participating in active occupations.” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/25/children-struggle-to-hold-pencils-due-to-too-much-tech-doctors-say.
This is backed up by Gavin Sandercock, co-author of research on children’s muscle strength and endurance from the University of Essex, published in The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. “In order to develop strength you have got to use your muscles – you have got to use them repeatedly and you have got to use them regularly… [Children] are not doing the type of activity which will promote strength.” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/25/study-reveals-fall-in-muscle-strength-of-10-year-olds.
For children to grip a pencil and move it with coordination, they need to have developed good control of the fine muscles in their fingers. Therefore, youngsters need lots of opportunities to develop their fine motor skills through hands-on, practical activities. The versatile Beach Box Combo provides educational settings with sturdy, smart sand and water trays that can be linked together with a colourful lid, creating an ideal work surface to play on. Children can create small worlds, manipulate loose materials and stretch their imaginations, whilst they develop their fine motor skills. Taking learning outside adds another beneficial element, the stimulation and well-being benefits drawn from being out in the fresh air!
Promote Sensory Play
So, it is vitally important to ensure that the learning and play environments, at home, school and in the local community all support children in developing their physical, sensory, focus and emotional skills. The sixth and seventh senses are vitally important for good child development. Accessible, sensory-rich activities can be fun and exciting whilst helping children to organise their senses. This sensory organisation is fundamental for enabling and supporting learning and plays a large part in children’s success, enjoyment and achievement at school and in their future lives.