Dr. Dad says, “Stop taking apart the couch!”
OT Mom says, “Not just yet. Stack those those cushions, kids!”
You may be wondering, what the heck is proprioception? Proprioception is the sense of our joints position, the location of our body parts in space, and the awareness of the strength being used for a particular task. It allows us to know where our limbs are and how much force we are using at any given moment. The sense receptors for proprioception are within the muscles and joints of our bodies. This sensory system is super important and allows us to move and react to our environment and works in connection with our other senses. In particular, the tactile (aka touch) sensory system and proprioceptive system work closely to help use develop body awareness as children (Kramer & Hinojosa, 2010).
While most of us can self regulate our sensory needs to succeed throughout life, some of us need or could use a little more help. We are all on a continuum in the realm of sensory experience, and I believe that my kids happen to be more towards the sensory seeking end of the spectrum.
When my 3 year old gets out of bed, the first thing he does is STOMP down the hallway. He love to to crash, spin, jump, and dance. He screams just to scream and instead of just walking to his door of the car, he rubs against the car on his way. My daughter, who loves to spin and dance and push our kitchen chairs around the house seems to be following in his foot steps. It’s pretty normal for toddlers to be full of energy and active and it’s such a good opportunity to let them engage in sensory activities.
Your own kids (or yourself) may not be towards the sensory seeking end of the spectrum, but they are somewhere on the sensory continuum. Some of us seek out input, some of us avoid it, and most of use do a combination or do something in-between. Sensory input is all around us, and the way we process the world impacts our functioning in many ways.
So adding proprioceptive activities to your daily routine can help regulate your alertness or arousal to an optimal state.
Proprioceptive input is powerful.
It can calm you down or amp you up a bit. An easy way to think of proprioceptive input is to think of “heavy work” activities. You want these sensory experiences to impact your muscles and joints. My son is awesome at figuring out ways to engage in heavy work through play, but he sometimes needs a little help with he’s getting off track or when we are not at home when his usual go-to’s are not available.
Learning from the best, we can look at the favorite self-sought activities from my awesome little three year old:
- Stacking the couch cushions– Although it’s probably not the best thing for our couch (and drives Dr. Dad crazy) it provides multiple sensory inputs. He gets the heavy work from lifting and stacking the cushions. He also loves to climb over them and squeeze himself under them providing deep pressure input. An added bonus is that I can see his imagination at work. He likes to build “volcanos” and “hotels.” This activity obviously benefits from close supervision to prevent fall, injury, etc, but with supervision, it’s been a big favorite in my house.
- In addition to being buried under the couch cushions, my son loves to be buried by toys. Deep pressure following the hard work of moving the toys seems to comfort him. He will remove all of his toys from the toy box and ask to be buried. Again- use common sense and caution. I am looking forward to summer when he might like getting buried in the sand.
Since we are not always able to play in the living room by the couch and my kiddo still craves sensory input throughout the day, here are some additional ideas we’ve come up with to sneak in some input and/or add it to your daily routines.
- While at the store– push a shopping cart and help lift the shopping items- this obviously engages the muscles, and most kids think it’s pretty fun. I love that some grocery stores have mini carts for kids, what a great idea, load it up!
- Have them help with chores– shovel, rake, sweep, vacuum, mop, and scrub. While little ones might not do the best job, they are sure good helpers. Even if the chores take a bit longer, I find it rewarding to allow my kids to help and it provides such great sensory experiences. In addition to proprioception, you’re using lots of other great senses too (visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular)! It also helps develop a sense of accomplishment and roles within the family unit which I think is great for a child’s self-esteem.
- Push and pull– my son is a great helper and loves pulling his little sister in a wagon or sled, or pushing her in a stroller. Proprioceptive input that is in a consistent direction tends to be more calming, while push and pull actives (like tug-a-war, mopping, vacuuming) tend to be more alerting. Keep that in mind if you are considering a game of tug-a-war before bed… it might be best as a first thing in the morning activity.
- In a pinch- Adding proprioception throughout your daily routing takes just a few minutes. If you don’t have time for a big session, there are little things that can provide some great sensory input. Things like jumping jacks, dancing, yoga poses, animal walks (walk like a “bear,” “crab,” etc), clapping and marching/stomping games can be effective, quick, and easy to incorporate throughout the day.
- Don’t forget the small joints, they count too! Hard work for little hands can give some good input too. Some ideas for play time include actives like play dough, legos type snapping blocks, and popping bubble wrap. While helping out around the house, kids can help with kneading pizza or bread dough, squeezing a spray bottle, or maintaining control of a hand held electric mixer when baking.
Finally, please remember, proprioception is not just for kids. Perhaps my kids are on the sensory seeking end of the proprioceptive spectrum because I am as well. People who know me, know I have trouble sitting still, and Dr. Dad can attest to my sometimes strange dance moves/hops that can seem to come out of nowhere while just walking through my house (though I tend to restrain myself in public). Part of my sensory routine is going for runs whenever I get the chance or at least doing some light to moderate physical activity on a daily or near daily basis. While my husband isn’t quite the sensory seeker I am when it comes to proprioception, he does feel great and balanced after lifting weights. What do you do to regulate yourself?
Kramer, P. & Hinojosa, J. (2010). Pediatric Occupational Therapy (3rd ed). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, PA
*Disclaimer: The information presented in the blog is intended for information and entertainment purposes only. Please consult your physician with any medical concerns and/or for medical advice. The information presented is not intended to be used in place of individualized therapy services, please contact your health care team for skilled therapy if you think it is necessary. Please supervise your children (or friends, spouses, etc) if you decide to try any of the activities or ideas presented as the author or this blog does not claim liability for possible injury or negative consequences related to the activities and ideas presented here.