The seven senses: supporting your child’s sensory development

Encouraging sensory development in young children is not only a fun and engaging way to play, but serves as the foundation for all learning.

Learn new ways to develop children's senses! Photo credit: ANR Communications | MSU Extension
Learn new ways to develop children's senses! Photo credit: ANR Communications | MSU Extension

We all learned the five senses in elementary school: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. But did you know we actually have seven senses? The two lesser known senses are vestibular and proprioception and they are connected to the tactile sense (touch).

  • Vestibular sense involves movement and balance. It is the sense of where our body is in space. Close your eyes for a minute and take a quick inventory of your body. Even without seeing or touching, you know where your arms and legs are in space. Vestibular sense is important because it helps us stand, walk and sit up without falling over.
  • Proprioception is also called body awareness sense. This sense helps us understand where our body parts are in relation to each other. It also helps us figure out how much force to use in different activities (think of picking up a fragile glass versus a gallon of milk).

These two senses help round out our ability to connect and interact with the world around us. Vestibular and proprioception, when combined with our other five senses, are referred to as sensory processing. Sensory processing is crucial for motor, speech, cognitive, learning, social, attention and behavioral development.

So, how can you help your child develop their vestibular and proprioception senses along with their other five senses? The key to developing these skills is input. Providing varied sensory information for your child’s brain to experience and begin to make sense of will help. Keep your child active and provide them with opportunities to move and interact with the world in different ways. Michigan State University Extension suggests the following activities to support your child’s vestibular and proprioception senses:

  • Play: blow and pop bubbles, play peek-a-boo, discover a sandbox or sensory table, cook or bake together, play tag or go for a bike ride.
  • Explore: help your child explore different age-appropriate substances with differing sizes (cups, blocks, beads, etc.) and textures (pudding, shaving cream, play dough, Goop, noodles, water, sand). Or check out more ideas here.
  • Move: encourage your child to crawl, walk, climb, run, ride, roll, jump and swing. Try engaging your child in heavy work: have them push or pull weighted things, like bringing in the groceries.

While all of these activities can help support your child’s sensory processing, it is important not to overload them. Giving children ample time in a quiet, calm environment is important to keep them from getting overstimulated and allow them time to recharge.

By helping your child explore, understand and control their body, you are helping them begin to explore and understand the world around them. 

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