Our 5 senses? Think again!

Schools have it all wrong. Year after year, teachers inform learners about the five senses and we are all very familiar with the role that touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing play in our lives.  Yet they omit other senses, in particular two that are crucial for living and learning.  These two are ignored perhaps because they are invisible to us, but nevertheless need our attention. We could argue that these might be the most important to children’s school success.

  1. Vestibular

The vestibular sense is housed in the inner ear and common knowledge is that it enables us to maintain balance. However, vestibular activities are responsible for much more.  It is one of the building blocks of brain development and later learning.  Here are some of its functions which are linked to school success (extracted from the website Griffinot.com):

Alertness and focus

The vestibular system helps with alertness and we know that learning firstly requires good attention and focus. Without good attention, it is very difficult to stay on task or to listen to your teacher.  If you can’t stay focused on a task, it will take a lot longer to get the work done.

Balance and postural control

Balance and postural control (easily maintaining bodily positions) are essential for all motor skills.  Sitting at a desk requires good postural control.  So does sitting on the carpet. Without it, you will likely start leaning on your peers or fidgeting.  Using a pencil or a computer also require good postural control.  Playtime and sports are also much more difficult without good balance and postural control.

Children who are more sensitive to movement may avoid activities and reduce their opportunities for learning. Those who seek out extra input often are too quick and have poor control over their movements.  They often get in trouble for constantly being on the go.  Those with slower responses often have poor coordination and tire more easily as they need to use more effort to sustain positions than their peers.

Spatial awareness

Spatial awareness is knowing where your body is in relation to everything else in your environment. It’s important to ensure you don’t bump into others and can easily move around.  Knowing how things are positioned in space is also important for subjects like maths and essential for times tables.  It plays a role in making sure you get your letters and numbers facing the right way and on the line.  Visual processing is also important for these things, but the vestibular system helps to lays the foundation.

Eye movements

Good control over eye movements is also essential for most learning tasks.  When reading, you need to be able to scan from left to right, then move your eyes back to the left without skipping lines.  When looking at the teacher, you have to be able to look at the teacher then the board then your work, ideally with smooth transitions between each.  To catch a ball you need to be able to track it and keep focused on it to allow your hands to be ready to catch. If you’re running you also need the image to stay steady rather than bounce up and down.

Overall our vestibular sense is really essential for learning!  This is why the more opportunities a child is given for vestibular activities throughout the school day or during home schooling, the more readily available they will be to receive cognitive information.

  1. Proprioception

The proprioceptive sense is our subconscious awareness of our body. A child who has difficulty with the proprioceptive sense may be the one who is clumsy, who sleeps restlessly, who plays too roughly because she is unaware of where her body is in space or how to moderate her movements.

Not knowing where your position is in space makes it difficult to understand abstract concepts such as before and after, above and below, up and down. This impacts on mathematics, time concepts and spelling, amongst others.

While it may not be noticeable to us adults as observers, these children may be working really hard just to keep their bodies in their seats during lessons. If they are working that hard to keep their bodies in the right position, it may be really hard for them to concentrate on what is exactly being taught. We can help these children out by allowing movement breaks prior to learning experiences so they are as ready as they can be to receive and process information.

The good news is that we can help a child restore better functioning of these senses. In the next post, I’ll be listing signs that a child’s vestibular and proprioceptive senses are in need of help.




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