The lower four senses are probably the most important in the development of the young child.  The sense of balance is perhaps the most intense to try and write in a short article!   My personal notes on this sense is well over fifteen pages and I have struggled for several days trying to condense the information.  Alas, time has demanded I just click “publish”!

Balance only occurs in relationship to something else.   It is a perception of position.  It gives us the possibility to take our place, so to speak,  without losing our balance.   It is also called sense of orientation. There is a specific location in the body that is the primary sense organ of balance – the three semi-circular canals of the ear.  This formation allows us to have a relationship to the three dimensions of space:

  • right/left: main access -arms
  • front/behind: main access – limbs
  • above/below: main access – spine – determines up-down direction

The vestibular system is connected to spatial orientation within and around us.  It is the central regulator of the sense world.  It integrates all of the other systems including vision and helps us organize everything we do.  The vestibular is the “grand knitter” that makes pathways between systems. When a child spins they are stimulating the vestibular.  How many times have you watched a child turning until they can not stand?   They are testing gravity.

The semicircular canals are in each of these three planes.  Each tube is filled with gellatenous substance with little  crystals or otoliths.  These crystals sweep past the cilia (hair-like nerves) to send a message to the brain from the inner ear regarding the pull of gravity.  It is important to note that some diets and experiences inhibit the formation of these crystals (i.e. those highly processed “white” powder diets).  Bilirubin lights destroy the inner ear crystals.  Studies have been conducted that looking at the light emitted by television that is similar to bilirubin lights and the possible destructive implications.  Antibiotics interrupt the chemical processes to develop the otoliths.  It is also important to note that fatty acids are necessary for the little hairs in the tubes which are important as well.

On the simplest of terms a child with vestibular dysfunction does not integrate or process the information about movement, gravity, balance and space very effectively.   Our eye movements are connected to the vestibular system and reading problems may arise if child hasn’t developed the brain function necessary for coordinating left to right eye movements.  Vestibular dysfunction can contribute to difficulty processing language and some children could have problems learning to communicate, read, and write as a result.

Let’s look at four facets of vestibular dysfunction.

Vestibular Hypersensitivity –  This is when movement or the possibility of being moved, will cause a child to become overexcited, emotional, or react negatively in some way.  For this child, riding in an automobile (especially in the backseat) can cause car sickness, will avoid riding a bike, sliding or swinging.  Rotary movement can be even more upsetting.  This child can easily get dizzy and nauseated in tire swing, fair rides, in airplanes for example.

Gravitational Insecurity -being connected to the earth is a basic need for survival and the vestibular system gives us our relationship to the ground.  We have this deep trust that we are, indeed,  attached to the earth and we call this gravitational security.  Normally, a child will experiment with gravity by jumping, swinging, and things like somersaults. Gravitational insecurity is manifested by extreme upset, fear, and anxiety to falling or the possibility of falling.  It is a primal fear.  Movement for this child is not fun – it is scary and they typically will respond with fight or flight response.  As an educator, I see a large number of behavior issues related to a child’s sense of balance.

  • fight response plays out as negative, defiant, behavior particularly when passively moved – may resist being picked up, rocked or pushed in stroller as an infant and as a young child fight back when pushed to move against their will.
  • flight response plays out as extreme caution or avoidance of movement.  This child will prefer keeping her feet firmly planted on the ground and will avoid riding bike, sliding, and swinging.  Child with this fear can become inflexible and controlling and can have social and emotional problems.

Vestibular Hyposensitivity This child’s brain has an increased tolerance for movement and needs a lot of activity.  To get vestibular stimulation, this child will seek ways to resist gravity such as hanging up side down or bouncing high on trampolines. Child can become a bumper/crasher and seek intense movement sensations, such as jumping from the top of playground equipment or running super fast.  This child will crave linear movement such as rocking or swinging,  and rotary movement such as twirling in circles.  They will always be seeking new thrills, and race from one activity to another.   These children can have a short attention.

Bilateral Coordination – bilateral coordination means that we can use both sides of the body to cooperate as a team.  In a well-regulated vestibular system, both sides of our body are integrated.  By age three or four, a child should have mastered a bilateral skill called crossing the midline.  This is the ability to move one hand (foot, or eye) into the space of the other hand (foot or eye).  We cross the midline when we scratch an elbow, cross our ankles, and read left to right.

For the child who avoids crossing the midline -coordinating both body sides may be difficult.  When watercolor painting this child can switch the brush from one hand to the other at the midway point separating the right and left side.  They also can have difficulty establishing hand dominance.  They will have trouble jumping with both feet or catching a ball with two hands.  We also see these children have difficulty managing scissors.

Ways to foster healthy development of sense of balance:
Look to providing two main kinds of movement:

  • Linear movement (back and forth, side to side, up and down) is most soothing (child being rocked)
    • Jump rope
      walking the balance beam
      walking on tippy toes
  • Rotary movement – moving in circles which stimulates vestibular system (children twirling, circle games, folk dancing).
    • spinning

Again, this points to the critical importance of a play based environment and active, engaged learning for young children.