What’s the Deal with Balance? Sensory Processing from A to Z
There’s a reason why the balance beam is an Olympic sport. Balance is a hard skill for all of us. Most of us struggle to stand on one foot, let alone doing flips on a beam.
Needless to say, balance is especially challenging for our kids with sensory issues. So many factors go into our abilities to balance, factors that are impacted by sensory processing disorder.
Let’s dive into how balance works so that we can understand why it’s challenging for our kids with sensory challenges. We’ll also look at some great balance activities for children.
How Does Balance Work?
When we stand on one foot in yoga class, leap over a puddle, or do any type of standing balance activities, a ton of systems kick into gear. Here are the most influential ones.
Have you noticed how much harder it is to balance with your eyes closed than with them open? Vision plays a huge part in balance so, when we eliminate it, we tell our other balance systems to pick up the slack, which isn’t easy.
When our eyes are open, 2/3 of the brain’s electrical activity is devoted to the brain Crazy, right?! This means that our eyes are doing much more than helping us see what’s around us.
When we look around, our brains get valuable information about where we are oriented in space, how objects relate to the positions of our bodies, and subtle shifts in our environment. Most importantly, our vision impacts our vestibular system which, as we’ll talk about next plays a huge role in balance.
The vestibular system is what people typically think about when thinking about balance. The main components of the vestibular system are found in the inner ear.
This is why Occupational Therapists often ask if children have had chronic ear infections, as ear infections can have a negative impact on the vestibular system.
Even though balance is about so much more than the vestibular system, it’s often seen as the balance powerhouse. The vestibular system is responsible for telling our brains about spatial orientation, body movement, posture, and how to stabilize the head and body. This is the system that’s responsible for the joys of motion sickness.
The vision and vestibular system is connected through the vestibular-ocular reflex, which translates head movements into eye movements so as to maintain a clear image. So, when we close our eyes, we are denying the vestibular some key components that it needs to keep us upright and stable.
Vestibular issues can often be flagged as early as infancy with delays in head movements. Later on, you may notice delays in gross motor movements.
Muscle and Joint Input
Whenever we move, our muscles and joints tell our brains that we’re on the go. From a balance perspective, it’s important that our brains know that our feet are in front of us instead of behind us, for example.
Every time we move, we need to recalibrate to the new position and find proper balance again.
There are times when it’s really clear that one specific system is causing more problems than the other. If my child has really bad eyesight, I can take a good guess that the vision system needs some help. On the other hand, if my child has had a lot of ear infections in the past, it’s best to consider the vestibular issues that are going on.
Other times, we can’t simply blame on sensory system in particular. In fact, there may not be any issues with any of the systems at all. Instead, we’re dealing with a sensory integration problem.
Our vision, vestibular system, and muscle and joint inputs all need to all work together in order to properly achieve balance on a consistent basis.The communication between these systems needs to be flawless because, if they stop talking to each other for even a second, we could fall down or crash into a wall. This communication can start to wane as we age, which is why older individuals are more prone to falling.
This communication is also an issue for our kiddos with sensory challenges, as they often struggle to properly integrate the sensory information they receive. Basically, all of the systems needed for balance aren’t talking to each other. For example, I start to balance on one foot, but that change in position doesn’t register with all of my balance systems properly. So, I fall over. My senses are like a basketball team that doesn’t know where the ball is.
What Can I Do to Help My Child’s Balance?
Practice, practice, practice. Did I mention practice?
To continue with the clichés, neurons that fire together, wire together. Just because a child’s balance systems aren’t talking to each other doesn’t mean that they can’t learn to communicate. The body really wants to work at its best.
This is why our wounds heal, we get better from flus, and we get back up after we fall down. Our brains and bodies crave learning and progress.
With enough practice, our kids can improve the communication between their balance systems. Here are some great exercises to work on.
Think about how often you have to stand on one foot to kick a ball. Playing a game like soccer adds an extra challenge and benefit, as you have to maintain your balance while you’re moving. This is a great way to get all of the sensory systems firing to keep you upright. Not to mention that it’s a fun game that kids won’t need a lot of poking and prodding to participate in.
Gymnastics, Dance, and Taekwondo
You’re starting to get the point here. Sports can be a huge help with your child’s balance. Anything that requires jumping, kicking, twirling, and leaping is going to challenge your child’s sensory system to get with the program.
Find a sport that your child is excited about and give it a try.
It may be really difficult to motivate them to participate at first. It’s no fun to be bad at something, especially when it’s something like balance that feels so confusing and out of control. If your child can find the motivation to participate though, sports can be a game changer and really helpful for improving balance skills.
Ride a Scooter
Scooters are not only super fun, but they’re also a great way to work on balance. You have to stand on one foot, watch where you’re going, stabilize yourself during turns, and monitor the force of your back foot pushing off the ground.
Grab a scooter before a skateboard though. Having the handles for support is a big help.
I get it if your kid can’t be asked to stand still for a few seconds, let alone do a whole yoga session. If you can manage it though, yoga is a great way to practice balance. Not only is there a lot of standing on one foot, your child will have to practice staying balanced while twisting, turning, and having their head down.
Type in yoga for kids on YouTube and you’ll find lots of great activities that seem more like play than traditional yoga. Yoga can be great for balance, sensory processing disorder, and many other things!
Sturdy Birdy Game
Fat Brain Toys has a fun game called the Sturdy Birdy game that involves balancing and fun. Kids roll the dice and strike the pose that lands face up. This game can be challenging for our kids that really struggle with balance, but it’s a good choice for those that are mastering their skills and want a new way to practice.
Find a Sensory Balance Beam
There’s no better tool for working on balance than a balance beam! You can call it your sensory balance beam! While your child may get bored of simply walking back and forth, there are a lot of games that can make balance beams more fun. Be sure to adapt the games to your child’s balance skills. When they start, they may need your support before they slowly begin to be able to walk on their own.
As the games in the video to the right show, you can use balance beams for more than walking. Practice stepping on and off, try jumping over, and work on sitting down and standing up. By incorporating different types of movements, you’ll be able to incorporate strengthening and hand eye coordination into your balance practice.
Charades is a game of pretend where players get to be anything they want to be! Feel free to make up your own words to act out that focus on balance. Flamingo, karate master, dancer, frog, and more. If you want inspiration, feel free to sift through a pre-made Charades game like the one to the right.
Everything we do requires balance. From walking to standing and getting up and down. This can make balance a really frustrating skill for our kids, as they are always confronted with it. The best thing we can do is make balance activities more fun and seem like they aren’t even about balance at all. Jump, skip, twirl, and play. Without even knowing it, your kid will be working on their balance skills.