By: Casey Sobotincic, OTA & PTA Diploma Program Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning
All posts are reviewed by a supervising Occupational Therapist. Hand Skills for Children is appreciative of the time and research, placement students commit to in writing posts for our blog.
Proprioception is a topic that you come across when speaking with an Occupational Therapist. Widely considered our “sixth sense”, proprioception is vastly important for how we interact with our environment. Simply put, proprioception is our sense of position and where our body is in space. Proprioception can also convey to ourselves the heaviness of our limbs and the force of our movement. It’s a subconscious, internal function that allows us to know where our limbs are even if we’re not looking at them with our eyes. This ability is best explained with an example.
When driving a car, is it necessary to stare at your feet to make sure you’re pressing the gas pedal? Can you focus on looking at the road, or must you stare at your hands to make sure they are grabbing the wheel and turning it? Of course not. In fact, you can probably do all these things while eating a snack or checking your blind spot. We often take for granted our proprioceptive abilities. Because of this sense, we are able to move our bodies freely and impulsively without having to use our visual sense to coordinate our movements. There are several fascinating neurological mechanisms that make this possible.
Proprioception is largely attributed to proprioceptors within our muscles and joints. Two organs that play a large role are muscles spindles and the Golgi tendon organ. Muscles spindles are sensitive to stretching and velocity within muscle tissue. When a muscle lengthens, a signal is fired that travels along the central nervous system and tells the brain that there has been a change in shape within the muscle. The Golgi tendon organ is found where muscles attach to bone and it senses tension within the muscle. It then sends this relevant information to the brain. Equipped with this information, the cerebellum can rightly infer where our muscles are taking our limbs. Moreover, our skin and joints contains small receptors that can detect limb movement. Amazing, proprioceptors can still tell us where our body is even when it is still. That is why you know your hand is by your side even when your not moving it.
Because the concept of proprioception can be difficult to understand, it can be helpful to explain what proprioception is not. Proprioception is not synonymous with the vestibular system, or the sense of balance, although it plays a contributing role. You may hear reference to kinaesthesia, which is more the sense of body movement and an aspect of behavioural development. Finally, proprioception is not immune to disease or injury. Our proprioceptive sense can be severely damaged, and if need be, restored with therapy.
Proprioceptive input can be a very regulating sense. That is, it can having a calming, as well as alerting, effect. Therefore, proprioceptive activities are often used to help kids reach a calm-alert state that allows them to focus and perform better. Studies show that 20 minutes of proprioceptive input can help calm an over-responsive child or alert an under-responsive child, depending on their own unique circumstances. Some children may display behaviours that suggest they are seeking proprioceptive input in an effort to self-regulate their response to stimuli.
A child may be seeking proprioceptive input if they:
- Bite or chew on inedible objects (ex. Their sleeve)
- Enjoy roughhousing
- Throw themselves heavily on the floor
- Sit on hands or with knees tucked under themselves
- Hyperextend or compress joints
- Write with excessive pressure and hold objects very hard
- Hit body parts together or against things
The following are some proprioceptive activities that may work for your child. It should be noted that each child is different. What may calm one child may over excite another who is overresponsive to proprioceptive input. Therefore, it is important to establish what specific activities work as an appropriate strategy for your child’s specific circumstance. Following an Occupational Therapy Sensory Assessment, your Occupational Therapist will be able to provide guidance as to the type of proprioceptive input that your child would benefit from most to address their needs. Some suggested activities may include:
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Wearing weighted vests, backpacks, lap weights
- Tight hugs
- Chewing very crunchy or chewy foods
- Squeezing stress balls
- Playing tug of war
- Being wrapped up in a blanket
- Being “sandwiched” or steamrolled