What is balance – and why is it important for learning?
Balance is a term frequently used by health professionals working in a wide variety of fields. There is no single accepted definition of balance and some professionals use the term ‘postural control’ as a synonym. Others consider postural control as the act of maintaining, achieving or restoring a state of balance during any posture or activity.
Balance is the ability to maintain a controlled body position while performing a task, whether it is sitting at a table, walking along a balance beam or stepping up a flight of stairs. To function effectively, we need the ability to maintain controlled positions easily during both static (still) and dynamic (moving) activities.
Static balance is the ability to hold a stationary position with control (e.g. “Freeze” or “statue” games). Dynamic balance is the ability to remain balanced while engaged in movement (e.g. running or bike riding).
Apart from keeping our bodies stable in a desired position, balance enables us to know where our bodies are in the environment. To achieve this, it needs good function of 3 senses (vision, vestibular, proprioceptive), central (brain) integration, and an effective motor output. More specifically, our sense of balance is specifically regulated by a complex interaction between the following parts of the nervous system (collectively known as the sensory motor system):
- The inner ears (also called the labyrinth) monitor the directions of motion, such as turning or forward-backward, side-to-side, and up-and-down motions.
- The eyes observe where the body is in space (i.e., upside down, right side up, etc.) and also the directions of motion.
- Skin pressure receptors such as those located in the feet and seat sense what part of the body is down and touching the ground.
- Muscle and joint sensory receptors (proprioceptors) report what parts of the body are moving.
- The central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) processes all the bits of information from the four other systems to make some coordinated sense out of it all.
As Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners, we are aware that many children have not acquired effortless balance. Further investigation often reveals inefficient functioning of one or more of the areas listed above.
Because our sensory motor system is hugely implicated in learning and behaviour, any area that remains underdeveloped may cause difficulties in learning and meeting classroom demands. This means that clumsiness or other signs of poor balance is a signal that the child may need some intervention to help or prevent school challenges.