What is the vestibular sense?
Not only do our ears sense sound waves that allow us to hear, but they also contain the vestibular system that contributes heavily to our sense of balance. The vestibular system is contained within the inner ear and consists of canals and organs filled with fluid and small, sensory hair cells. When we move, the inner ear moves along with us, but the fluid and hair cells briefly lag behind and send this movement information to the brain through our nerves. The incoming information from the vestibular system allows us to know the position of our body and, while an essential piece, is just one part of the interconnected puzzle that makes up our sense of balance.
What does the vestibular sense have to do with child development?
The brain processes incoming vestibular data and integrates it with live sensory input from the eyes and muscles, as well as previously learned information. These pieces work together in the brain to communicate motor commands to the rest of our body. Commands to the eyes, joints, and muscles allow us to stabilize our gaze and posture, allowing us to balance.
Previously learned information is a key component in this dance. The brain engages both the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex as a part of vestibular processing. According to the Vestibular Disorders Association, as the coordination center of the brain, the cerebellum communicates about “automatic movements that have been learned through repeated exposure to certain motions.” This is an essential part of developing muscle memory for motor skills. The cerebral cortex, among other functions, contributes important information involved in the synthesis of movements. This information may be in the form of memory, creativity, judgment, attention, and/or emotion. For example, one learns that wet or icy surfaces might be slippery and therefore different movements must be used to walk across safely.
What this means for child development is that the more vestibular stimulation a child gets, the more learned information their brains and bodies have built up to inform motor commands when there is new, incoming vestibular stimulus. This sensory learning cycle contributes to a better sense of balance, coordination, and confidence. In early childhood movement, the inherent practice of gaze stabilization is even shown to help our eyes with reading later on.
New research topics relating to the vestibular system suggest it may have even stronger implications for child development. Although more research is needed before definite conclusions are drawn, this body of emerging research investigates the intersections between the vestibular system and cognitive function. One group of researchers hypothesized the existence of critical periods early in life for vestibular stimulation and healthy cognitive development. Similarly, researchers Diane Deroualle and Christophe Lopez suggest the potential impacts of the vestibular system on social cognition.
How Waldorf education supports the development of your child’s vestibular sense:
- Waldorf curriculum is based in the physical world and is hands on. Not only is movement integrated into the main lessons, but there are also dedicated subject classes for movement such as PE & Games as well as Eurythmy. Early Childhood classes have daily circle activities and a weekly Eurythmy class with movements that include spinning around, skipping, jumping, hopping, and crawling.
- Waldorf values and emphasizes learning through direct interaction with one another as well as with teachers in exploring the world of ideas, participating in the creative process, and developing their knowledge, skills, abilities, and inner qualities. Technology as a tool begins in the Waldorf 9th grade curriculum.
- Children in Waldorf schools spend time outside every day, in all kinds of weather. During Early Childhood unstructured play and Grades recess, children have the opportunity to engage in vigorous free play on uneven surfaces and rolling hills. Common activities include sledding, swinging, running, and jumping.
- Time in nature is highly valued in a Waldorf school. Classes participate in the varied movements that come with farming and gardening. Early Childhood classes take walking field trips to the cottonwood trees. There, the children navigate across uneven surfaces as they climb on tree stumps and over down logs, walk across and balance on logs, and build forts.
- Early Childhood classes help with chores and cleaning up after inside play and snack time, including “heavy work” that is good for the vestibular system like sweeping or carrying weighted items.
What can you do as a parent to help develop your child’s vestibular sense?
According to Ginny Yurich, a thought leader in the world of nature-based play, mother of 5, and founder of 1000 Hours Outside, limiting screen time and getting your children outside are two of the best ways to stimulate their vestibular sense. Yurich says, “Childhood is when children develop the vestibular sense and it’s not happening while they sit still.” In a society where technology and especially screens are becoming more pervasive than ever before, the need grows stronger for mindfulness of its impacts on child development. According to Danielle Cohen, author of Child Mind Institute article “Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature”, “The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.” Yurich suggests taking whatever skill your child is working on to the outdoors. Simply by turning the activity of walking into snowshoeing or navigating around rocks on a trail, an extra balance challenge can be found.
“The importance of this sense of balance cannot be overemphasized. It is a unifying element in the whole system and seems to prime the entire nervous system to function properly.”
– Nancy Blanning & Laurie Clark, “Strengthening the Foundational Senses of the Young Child”
Blanning, Nancy, and Laurie Clark. “Strengthening the Foundational Senses of the Young Child.” The Waldorf Kindergarten. The Research Institute for Waldorf Education, www.waldorflibrary.org/images/stories/articles/waldorfkindergartenreprint.pdf.
Cohen, Danielle. “Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature.” Child Mind Institute, childmind.org/article/why-kids-need-to-spend-time-in-nature.
Deroualle, Diane, and Christophe Lopez. “Toward a vestibular contribution to social cognition.” Frontiers in integrative neuroscience vol. 8 16. 14 Feb. 2014, doi:10.3389/fnint.2014.00016
Vestibular Disorders Association, et al. “The Human Balance System.” Vestibular Disorders Association, 28 Sept. 2018, vestibular.org/understanding-vestibular-disorder/human-balance-system.
Wiener-Vacher, Sylvette R et al. “Vestibular activity and cognitive development in children: perspectives.” Frontiers in integrative neuroscience vol. 7 92. 11 Dec. 2013, doi:10.3389/fnint.2013.00092
Yurich, Ginny. “The Incredible Importance of Developing the Vestibular Sense.” 1000 Hours Outside, 15 Feb. 2019, 1000hoursoutside.com/blog/the-incredible-importance-of-developing-the-vestibular-sense.