Let's take an example to help fully explain this concept. A five year old little girl is playing in the grass with her friends. They are taking turns somersaulting down a small hill, giggling all the while. As she is tumbling, this little girl is also using her vision to check for rocks and trees. She is using her auditory sense to listen for her friends voices so she doesn't run into them. She is also using her tactile sense to make sure she avoids any holes or other objects which might hurt to roll over. Meanwhile, the VS is actively telling her which way is up and which way is down, whether her body is following her head on an accurate forward trajectory and is providing information about where her head is in space. Her entire nervous system is giving feedback that this is fun and also safe for her, so she is able to experience the joy of the movement. Kids naturally want to explore in this manner.
A healthy vestibular system is the root at the bottom of all sensory exploration and play. It gives the human body confidence to move in new ways that may seem scary at first. Vestibular exploration begins in the womb as the baby flip-flops in their mama's tummy. As a baby grows, they are of course rocked and bounced, activating the VS every time they are moved. Once they are able to fully move themselves, they know how different body positions feel and they gain confidence in gravity and their muscles to hold them upright. Challenging the VS is a natural inclination which is required in order to set the groundwork for all movement. A healthy VS thus gives a child a sense of safety so that they are able to move with self assurance through the world. It allows kids to jump through hoops, bounce on trampolines, spin holding their parent's hands and hang upside down on a tree branch.
How to help develop your child's vestibular skills
Make use of your local playground! Between visits to the grocery store and home, stop at that new playground and have your child give the spinner a try. If they are scared about trying something, you get on a swing first and show them how much fun you're having. They will want to join you. Going to new playgrounds helps develop new skills and will keep them from getting bored.
- play "monkey" by hanging upside down
- on a small slide, go hands first with a parent at the bottom for safety
- tilt your head back while spinning
- for older kids, practice jumping from a swing instead of just stepping off
- bounce on the ladder crossing
Explore kids yoga! There are lots of great kid yoga videos available and it's especially great for those rainy or cold snowy days. Yoga incorporates many poses which rely on the head being in different positions and it's a great way to learn balance, a byproduct of a healthy VS. Yoga, as an added benefit, will also strengthen and provide flexibility to growing muscles.
Home activities! There are lots of ways to promote a healthy VS in your own home.
- blanket swinging: you and a partner swing your child in a blanket.
- stair slide: use an old cardboard box as a slide down a bank of steps
- jump on the beds
- sing songs such as ring around the rosy, or rock back and forth as you sing row your boat. Wheels on the bus has lots of fun rounds which incorporate movement
- let them jump off the couch onto cushions
- your office chair is a super fun spin toy
- play "popcorn"... as you pop some in the microwave or stovetop, squat down on the ground and pop up into the air, just like the kernels
Out and about! For special outings, choose activities which get your kids outside and away from screens.
- water parks and amusement parks offer ample opportunities to get those bodies moving!
- hiking is just walking but spinning down a trail and hanging from a tree branch motivate kids to keep moving
- aerial parks are super challenging and fun
- swimming and jumping into water
These are just a few ideas to develop a growing vestibular system, but along the way you may discover some new ones of your own. Feel free to comment and share any ideas you may have! It is very likely that you may also find that your own aging vestibular system is not as skilled as your child's when it comes to being able to handle spinning or bouncing. That's okay! Just make sure you provide a good example to your child when it comes to willingness, safety and fun.