Develop your Child’s Vestibular Sense with Swinging ...or Dancing, Climbing and more
Have you ever wondered why kids love being tossed into soft surfaces? Or why they can spend hours just going down the slide and swinging on the swing set?
It is because they are developing their vestibular sense.
In school we are taught there are five senses: touch, sight, taste, smell, and hearing; but we have more senses than that.
The vestibular sense tells you where you are in space. It lets you know when you are upright or lying down. When you’re checking on your kiddo in the dark it lets you know if you are listing sideways, have lost your balance, or are falling.
Children spend most of their childhood developing this sense, and a lack of vestibular input can really hurt baby and toddler development. Without a properly developed vestibular sense, balance is affected which can delay crawling and walking. An adult who never fully developed their vestibular sense will be clumsy, may trip over their own feet a lot, and might suffer from vertigo.
Toddlers and children can get a lot of their vestibular needs from public playgrounds. During the pandemic that isn’t much of an option and children with sensory issues may need more vestibular input than the park can provide.
Here are easy and cheap activities you can do at home to help your kiddo develop their vestibular sense at every age.
Disclaimer: the age groups for these ideas are guidelines. Use your discretion if an activity is safe for your child.
How do I know if my child is struggling to develop their vestibular sense?
A child struggling with their vestibular sense may display some of the following signs (courtesy of The OT Tool Box). If you are concerned or your child displays a lot of these signs, make an appointment with your doctor.
A lack of vestibular sense can affect balancing which makes walking long stretches without falling difficult. Children may struggle to know where their feet are and have problems coordinating motions for more complex actions like skipping and running. Riding a bike may prove an impossible feat.
Children may also struggle with spatial awareness or hand-eye coordination. In young children, this could manifest in difficulty stacking or connecting blocks. Older kids may show this by thinking they have put a plate on the table, but it falls off, or an inability to catch/ throw/ kick a ball.
Tasks that require full-body coordination like tossing a ball from one hand to the other, or using a kitchen knife can also be affected. The left side of the body will struggle to know what the right side is doing.
Finally, the child may get dizzy and have a hard time knowing their relative orientation in space. Standing up and lying down could feel the same. Look to see if they hold their head at weird angles (get their hearing checked first). They may struggle to duck under things just at head height because they can’t tell if they have moved their head out of the way.
Even if your child is not experiencing any of these, they still need a lot of vestibular motion included in their sensory diet every day to make sure they have proper equilibrium as they grow.
Most infants use vestibular input to calm themselves, so a lot of parents naturally provide vestibular input as they care for their babies. Babies who don’t get enough input to develop their vestibular sense tend to cry more, which is part of why babies tend to settle in a swing or bouncer.
The most common vestibular inputs for infants include:
- Rocking in a rocking chair with an adult
- Walking with the baby
- Swinging in an infant swing
- Bouncing in the bouncer
- Driving in a car
- Walking in a stroller
All of these motions also help the vestibular sense develop.
Toddlers and Kids
After toddlers start to walk and have neck control, more sensory activities open up to them. Older kids have more vestibular activities than they can contend with. From tossing your child into the pool to jumping on the trampoline, or going on roller coasters, you can incorporate vestibular motion into your everyday life.
Below, I have listed a number of activities you can use to increase vestibular motion with your children at home for cheap or free.
Balance beam… or line… or string- $0
Take a spare 2x4 and lay it on the floor. Then help your child walk on the 2x4 like a balance beam. This teaches them where their feet are and improves balance as they have to make micro-corrections.
Don’t have a spare 2x4? You can use masking tape, a string or chord, or draw a line outside with chalk. Consider also encouraging them to balance on low curbs or edges (be mindful of cars) when you go on walks together.
Take your toddler and carefully toss them on the bed or in a pile of pillows. Alternatively, they can run down a ramp and throw themselves into a pile of pillows.
The running motion coupled with falling and the sudden soft stop helps them tell the difference between moving laterally (running) and falling. It also helps develop the reflexes that allow them to catch themselves.
Dancing, tumbling, spinning, rolling down a hill- $0
Once your child has developed their vestibular sense enough to keep them mostly oriented, they often decide to up the difficulty by adding rotation.
It is much harder to keep your balance after spinning around 20 times, but children are eager to try. Once your little one starts looking to spin, do what you can to add rotation into the routine.
Hanging upside down- $0
Every toddler I know finds hanging upside down to be super fun. Give them opportunities to invert as often as you can.
As they hang upside down they learn what inversion feels like, which is helpful when doing flips.
Jumping, hopping, running, and skipping- $0
Anything that causes both feet to leave the ground gives the inner ear a workout.
Go for a walk around the block and skip or hop while you do. Play hopscotch. Do cartwheels. Just go out, run around, and have fun!
Obstacle course- $0
Obstacle course days used to be my favorite in school. You climbed over things, jumped from platform to platform, and crawled through tunnels. It was awesome.
Your kids will love obstacle courses, too. These can be as easy as using tape on the floor to indicate motions they have to make (like jumping or hopping on one foot), to the most elaborate game of the floor is lava you can conceive.
Use found objects, like boxes or blankets and cushions to create tunnels or obstacles. Have fun with it and use your imaginations.
Many yoga postures work on balance and strength, and kids love to mimic us as we go through a routine. Start when they are about two and start trying to dance when you dance.
If you don’t know yoga, head over to YouTube and check out one of the many free toddler yoga classes they have. Give it a try, yoga with kids can be a lot of fun!
Swinging- $0 - $100
Every child should have regular access to a swing. They help build core strength, teach kids how to sit up straight, and really help develop the vestibular sense.
Many children of every age use swinging motions to calm down. One of the best things you can do for a child who is understimulated is put them in a swing.
Because we can’t spend much time outside in the summer where I live, we have a swing in our living room. It hangs from the ceiling and is truly indispensable. If you aren’t fortunate enough to be able to hang a swing inside, consider hanging one outside or make time to frequent parks so your little one can swing.
Climbing- $0 - $200+
Climbing puts our bodies into different orientations. We build strength and the vestibular sense starts to calibrate our orientation as it pertains to objects and rough terrain.
Toddlers start their climbing journeys by climbing up on chairs, sofas, and beds. You can cultivate this need by visiting a playground or getting equipment like a Pikler Triangle.
Sitting on a therapy ball - $5 - $20
It is actually really hard to sit on a therapy/yoga ball. To successfully sit on a ball you have to have balance, leg strength to keep the ball from rolling away, and core strength so you can sit up. While adults already have those skills, toddlers and many children do not.
Consider picking up a small therapy ball (or a standard-sized soccer ball) for your child to sit on instead of toddler-sized chairs. They are great for learning to throw/ catch and can help your child build a lifelong habit of sitting up straight all while working on their balance.
Rocking horse- $30 +
Rocking horses are great for offering younger children control of their rocking/ swinging motions. Pick one up second hand and give your little one the means to control their vestibular inputs.
Pushbike/biking- $60 +
Riding a bike requires us to balance on a moving two-wheeled vehicle while propelling it with our own motion. Nothing about that is easy or intuitive initially.
Learning to ride a bike goes through several phases, all of which help you know if you are listing sideways. Start with a pushbike around the age of two. That helps the body work out how to peddle, progress to a balance bike, and ultimately a bike with pedals.
Bottom Line: kids need to move
Give them as many opportunities as you can for them to swing, run, play, and tumble. It helps them build strong bodies and minds, all while helping develop their vestibular sense so they can balance as adults.
About the Author:
Jane Reid, author of Unprepared Mom, is an educator, tutor, women’s rights advocate, and mom. She translates research on development and parenting to make it accessible to everyone. For more great parenting and development tips, check out unpreparedmom.com and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter.