What Is Proprioception & How To Improve Your Child’s Proprioceptive Sense

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Did you know that we have 8 senses? Apart from our 5 external senses (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory), we also have 3 internal senses (proprioception, vestibular, and interoception).

In this article, we are going to talk about proprioception, what is it, why it is important, and how do we know if our child has proprioception dysfunction. If your child has difficulty with proprioceptive input, we are also going to talk about some activities that you can do with them.

As an Occupational Therapist, proprioception training or activities are my favorite tool in my OT toolbox. Apart from helping children develop gross motor skills, proprioception is an excellent way to help children calm and regulate their bodies. Proprioception is needed in the activities that we do on a daily basis.

So let’s learn more about it!

What is Proprioception?

Photo of beautiful sportswoman handstanding while practicing yoga by seaside in morning

Imagine if you close your eyes and someone tilts your head and moves your arms so they are holding your waist. Without opening your eyes or looking in the mirror, you know what that position looks like. That’s because your body is using your proprioceptive sense.

Proprioceptive sense or proprioception provides information about our body position and movement (Kranowitz, 2005).

When we move our body parts, receptors in our muscles, skin, joints, ligaments, tendons and connective tissue picks up the movement (Kranowitz, 2005). This is then translated into our central nervous system (i.e. brain and spinal cord). This means our brain knows what movement we did and what position we are in now. For example, knowing our joint position without even looking.

Proprioception is also known as our “internal eyes” which means, even without looking, we know where our body is. Proprioception also has an important role in a person’s sensory processing as proprioceptive input can assist in modulating reactions to sensory stimuli.

Function of Proprioception

The proprioceptive system is our “position sense” and our “muscle sense”. Proprioception helps us:

  • Know where our body is in space
  • Relationship between different parts of our body parts
  • How much or quickly our muscles are stretching
  • How fast our body is moving
  • How our timing is, and
  • How much force and pressure is used (Kranowitz, 2005).

Know where our body is in space

African descent kid jumping on the bed

Proprioception helps us know where our body is in space. It allows us to know if we are sitting on the chair or the edge of the chair.

When the teacher tells us to sit on the chair properly, a child with good proprioception can shuffle their bottoms in the middle of the chair and backward. However, a child with a lack of proprioceptive input may still end up on the edge of the chair without knowing.

Relationship between different parts of our body parts

Proprioception allows us to be more coordinated in our movements and allow us to do tasks more efficiently because we are not reliant on our eyes.

For example, proprioception allows us to put food in our mouth without making a mess and smearing food all over the rest of our faces.

Proprioception also means we can get dressed faster and put our arms through a shirt. Instead of looking at where the armholes are, we can just push our arms through the whole without looking.

How much or quickly our muscles are stretching

Child is pretending to be a soccer player

When we move, our muscles tighten or stretch. Our proprioceptive senses are one of the sensory modalities that allow us to know how much or how quickly our muscles are moving.

For example, when we are kicking a ball, children with developed proprioception will know how much to bend their knee and how quickly to move their leg.

This is a really important skill when we play sports. It allows us to run at different paces without tripping over. In yoga or when we are doing warm-ups, our proprioceptive sense tells our body if we are overstretching.

How fast our body is moving

In addition to the above point, proprioception allows us to know how fast our muscles are contracting, therefore it will help us know how fast our body is moving.

How our timing is

When we need to perform an action at a particular time, like jumping on a trampoline, while jumping over the skipping rope, catching or throwing a ball, or hitting the ball with a bat, proprioception allows us to have the correct timing of these movements.

If a child has poor proprioception, their body receives this information too late and therefore cannot perform coordinated movements.

How much force and pressure is used

Little kid pushing a boat there are his friends in a pool in Thailand

Proprioception allows us to know how much force and pressure to use.

For example, some children with poor proprioception have difficulty controlling how much pressure they are using to write and therefore can get tired easily when they are writing.

Similarly, some children who have poor proprioception may often slam the door or put things down heavily, without knowing.

It can be hard to do daily tasks like doing up buttons, handwriting, and even giving someone a high five with the right amount of force if we have poor proprioception.

Why is Proprioception Important?

Proprioception is used with our other senses, like tactile and vestibular senses, to do a range of activities throughout the day.

Proprioception helps us:

  • Walk smoothly
  • Run quickly
  • Throw, catch and kick balls
  • Use cutlery
  • Handwriting
  • Do up buttons
  • Carry items
  • Sequence our body movements
  • Regulate our energy levels

What is Proprioceptive Dysfunction?

Proprioception Disorder or Proprioceptive Dysfunction is when there is difficulty with interpreting body positions and movements from the muscles and joints (Kranowitz, 2005).

Children and adults with proprioception disorder & proprioceptive dysfunction may look clumsy and uncoordinated.

Because of this, children who have proprioception disorder display poor proprioception may avoid gross motor activities and therefore not develop those skills. Additionally, fine motor tasks like doing up buttons, using cutlery, and handwriting can also be hard for these children. Therefore, there may be disruptive behaviors to avoid doing these tasks.

Signs of Poor Proprioception

Children who have poor proprioception may display some of the following behaviors.

  • Appears to be clumsy
  • May avoid gross motor skills like running, jumping, climbing on playground activities, especially any activities that are new
  • Has trouble getting dressed
  • Uses a heavy grip on a pencil
  • Deliberately run and crash into objects
  • Enjoy big hugs
  • Stomps their feet when walking
  • Likes to be tucked in bed tightly
  • Frequently bags hands together
  • Runs into people on purpose
  • Throws themselves into bed, couch, beanbags etc.

If you notice these signs, it is important to address them quickly as this will allow your child to work on developing these skills so they don’t get left behind.

What can I do with my child who has poor proprioception?

Trainer and kids carrying wooden logs during obstacle course training

Proprioception activities or proprioceptive training are also known as deep pressure or heavy work activities. This proprioceptive training includes pushing, pulling, carrying heavy objects, and weight-bearing.

As mentioned above, proprioception activities not only help develop motor skills, it can also work as a calming strategy.

Here is a list of proprioception training. Your child may already be doing a range of these activities:

  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Digging in the sandpit
  • Hanging on the monkey bars
  • Pushing against the wall
  • Animal walks
  • Stomping
  • Crawling over obstacle courses
  • Squeezing a stress ball
  • Carrying grocery bags
  • Tug-o-war
  • Star jumps
  • Rolling a gym ball on top of the child
  • Child lying on top of the gym ball and rolling onto their arms
  • Wheelbarrow walks
  • Moving furniture
  • Opening and closing doors
  • Yoga
  • Rock climbing
  • Swimming
  • Chew bubble gum
  • Eat crunchy food

Summary

Proprioception is an important skill to have. It allows us to know where our body is in space. Proprioception is needed for childhood development and the development of fine motor & gross motor skills, body awareness, emotional regulation, and also the ability to participate in daily life.

Poor proprioception can make children not want to join in sports, have difficulty with regulating their emotions, avoidant self-care tasks such as brushing their teeth and dressing, and can negatively impact social skills.

If you think your child has poor proprioception, it is important to talk to your child’s doctor or Occupational Therapist or consider physical therapy. Conditions such as sensory processing disorder require professional assistance.

For more information about proprioception and activities to do with your child, check out ReadyKids online platform.

References

Kranowitz, C. (2005). The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

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