Does Swinging Benefit Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?
We use our senses every day, almost without thought. Seamlessly we navigate the world, using sight or sound to cross the road, our smell to judge our food, or touch when grabbing or holding an object. We switch between these senses with ease, using them to predict the world around us. Yet, as a famous song once went: 'you don't know what you've got till it's gone.' Or, put another way, if something is working you will not even notice it’s there.
However, for children with sensory processing disorder (SPD), understanding the world around them can be a struggle. Filtering and organising the wave of sensory input is confusing and overwhelming. Integrating this sensory information and deciding how to act is troublesome for many children with learning difficulties. At worst, the cacophony of information can trigger a sensory meltdown.
Our understanding of SPD has led us to appreciate the benefits of swinging as a source of therapy and relaxation.
The Vestibular System: The Basics
The vestibular system is located deep within the inner ear. It helps detect the body’s movements and relation to gravity. It then reports this information to the brain, which then uses the information to navigate the world. The vestibular system helps you balance and coordinate your movements. Without it walking upstairs would be a challenge.
In children with SPD, these vestibular and proprioceptive (knowing where your body parts are located) senses get easily confused. Even in healthy people, spinning round on a ride can leave you disoriented. In SPD sufferers, the dysfunction of their vestibular system can lead to emotional instability. It can also lead to fears of everyday activities: climbing stairs, cars and buses, elevators and more.
Overwhelming the vestibular input can lead to up to eight hours of positive or negative effects on the brain. Therefore, this system needs to be strengthened.
Sensory Integration: What Is It?
When occupational therapists help children with SPD, they use a technique called sensory integration. As the name suggests, it involves teaching the child to use all their senses, in tandem. This sensory information is then integrated to achieve a particular behaviour, such as swinging.
However, the aim is not to overwhelm the child. At any moment, seemingly ordinary sensory input may tip over into an intense sensory experience. Therefore, sensory integration is done progressively, gradually increasing the child’s ability to use their senses. It's made fun so that a child will want to keep participating. The child also uses their initiative in the sessions, deciding what they want to do.
How is Swinging Involved?
You might be wondering how swinging relates to all this. Well, swinging is one of the best methods for gradually developing a child’s vestibular function. Activities such as climbing or football are intense, requiring heavy use of the vestibular system. They’re also all or nothing. Sure, you can kick a ball, but to play football involves running and shouting, sight and sound.
Meanwhile, swinging, by its nature, can be incrementally increased in intensity. Additionally, the one-directional nature of a swing focuses on the child's vestibular system. The back and forth movements are calming and soothing, like waves at sea.
Swinging has a range of well-known benefits. It requires balance and coordination, using their limbs to move backwards and forwards in the swing. Visual cues and vestibular inputs must be used to maintain balance. It also builds strength, as only by holding a posture and using their muscles can the swing move.
Furthermore, swinging develops a child's sense of body awareness. We mentioned how proprioception involves knowing where each part of your part is. In children with SPD, proprioceptive inputs can be as confusing as the vestibular.
When swinging knowing the location of each body part is essential. Legs must move in time, together; arms must hold on tight. Their body must move back and forth. With your legs off the ground, knowing where each bit of you is, can be tricky. However, the more practice children get, the stronger their understanding becomes. Their brain adapts.
By combining all of these elements into a single activity, swinging is ideal for sensory integration. It also provides a safe and secure environment from which to gain confidence. Many hammock swings provide deep pressure around the body, which is a comforting sensation.
The Benefits of Hammock Swings
Hammock swings benefit from all the positives listed above. They help boost core strength, enhance balance and coordination, and develop sensory awareness. However, as mentioned, they are also a source of comfort. Therefore, hammocks are much more versatile.
If a child is having a sensory meltdown, hammocks can offer a safe space to calm their mind. They can alleviate anxiety and confusion, both through the movement and the deep pressure. Inside the hammock, children can still do their homework or read a book. All while integrating sensory information.
Plus, hammocks offer additional sensory input than a regular swing. The feel of the fabric, the way the light shines through, the creaking as it rocks. Each of these adds a gentle complexity to the sensory stimulus of the child. Collectively, it cannot just boost vestibular and proprioceptive development, but audio-visual and tactile as well.
Finally, hammock swings can be installed practically anywhere: outdoors or indoors. If you want to put it up in a bedroom, in a doorway, or on the patio, it’s equally as easy.
So, if your child struggles with SPD, consider using a swing for therapy. It is calming and relaxing, but also key to sensory integration.