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  • Jane Erbe, OTR/L

Sensory Series: Proprioception

Walking up steps without looking~that's proprioception

I know you’ve been waiting to find out what other sensory system is located in your body that you never knew existed!  Say hello to the PROPRIOCEPTIVE system. Like vestibular, it doesn’t roll off the tongue, so let’s say it together:


This system is located in all our muscles and joints and gives us our internal map of our body.  It’s the reason why we don’t fall off our chairs or bump into door frames when we walk through our house.  It allows us to move our bodies without having to look at every movement we make in relation to the world around us.  We don’t need to always pay attention to where our body ends and the rest of the world begins to be able to move fluidly. 

And what’s even more amazing about this system is that it’s working 24/7. Even when we’re sleeping! For example, when is the last time you fell out of bed? (I’m not counting that crazy, wild night you had once in a blue moon ago.)  You don’t need to be constantly feeling where the edge of the bed is so that you don’t fall off. You just have an innate understanding of how close to the edge of the bed your body is, without having to be constantly double-checking that you’re not too close. That’s because of your proprioceptive system!  It gives you your understanding of yourself and your body.

Of course, when we’re learning a new movement pattern, like learning to ski, swinging a racket, or holding a pencil, we have to use our eyes to help us figure out how to move our body in this new way.  But, very quickly, our proprioceptive system learns this new movement pattern, and it frees our eyes up to pay attention to other things -- the skiers around us, the ball coming at us, the letters on the smartboard the teacher is teaching us.  

And what is even more amazing is that the human body is constantly taking in sensory information, processing whether this information is relevant, and either taking action and learning how to adapt, or deciding it’s unimportant and ignoring the information.  For example, if you’re sitting in a chair right now, most likely you are not at all aware of the muscles and receptors in your body that make that task possible. And you shouldn’t be aware; it’s what we call a “no-brainer,” meaning that your cognitive skills should not be tied up with keeping you in the center of the chair.  

All the sensory systems are at the foundation of higher-level learning.  So we want these foundational skills to be STRONG! Which is why it’s so important that we allow our children to move and play and develop this system (along with the six others).  And the way we strengthen this system is with HEAVY WORK.  Heavy work is a relative term -- think 10-15% of your child’s body weight.  Any activity that is resistive would be heavy work. With resistance, the body is gaining information about itself. 

Since we live in an environment that is more sedentary than active, where there is less and less recess and more and more time spent in front of screens, there is no time to lose!  We need to help our children strengthen this system. And there are easy and fun ways to do this: lift, push, pull, drag & carry.

  • Have them push a laundry bin full of toys pretending to be a mailman delivering packages

  • Allow them to carry their own backpack with a few extra books to add weight

  • Give them the special job of putting away groceries

  • Tie a rope around a bunch of larger stuffed animals and have them lasso and pull them in

  • Practice animal walks (crawling like a dog, slithering like a snake, hopping like a frog) to go from one room to another, to get their shoes on, or to come to dinner

Giving your child the opportunity to experience these types of movements throughout the day, everyday, will strengthen this system and build those higher-level skills.  Again, they may not thank you today, but one day they will.

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