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Vestibular Development & the importance of physical play

Our Vestibular System is what allows us to experience and coordinate movement. It’s why, when in an elevator, even though our visual input remains the same, we can feel we are descending as the elevator starts to descend. It’s one of the first to develop in a growing foetus and is stimulated by the movement of a carrying mother's body. By only 5 months in utero, it provides a great deal of sensory information to a growing foetal brain.

At birth, its building blocks are complete but maturation continues throughout the school years. This is why children can spin in circles over and over again but the mere sight of it makes adults nauseous! They’re giving themselves the necessary input to strengthen and improve their Vestibular pathways.

Some of the benefits of a well-developed Vestibular System


When we move our head, specialised cells send signals to our brain, allowing our body to respond. E.g. when a child wobbles on one leg to get dressed, their Vestibular System tells the body how to adjust & stay balanced. If a child’s Vestibular System is not working well, they may appear clumsy.

Visual Coordination/Tracking

It allows us to keep our eyes steady as we move our head around, making sure we have a smooth stream of visual input – letting us track and follow visual information. Without this, a child may find it difficult to: easily switch between looking up at the whiteboard and then back to their work in class, read effortlessly – they find it hard to track/scan lines of text, enjoy sports – they find it hard to keep track of a moving ball!

Develop and maintain normal muscle ‘tone’

Muscle tone = our muscles’ ‘state-of-readiness’. Without a properly developed Vestibular System, a child may find it hard to ‘hold themselves up’ properly. They may opt to lie down or hunch instead of sitting up or lean on their elbow while at their desk. Children may help manage these difficulties by endlessly fidgeting – as this stimulates their Vestibular System.

You may have noticed that these skills are essential for a successful school experience. This is why a well-developed Vestibular System is essential for school-readiness. Many children who are labelled as ‘lazy’ or ‘difficult’ in the classroom simply have under-developed Vestibular Systems. Often they are just trying to get by and find ways to manage to get through the day!

Some easy ways to help your child foster their Vestibular Development

1. Rock, sway and dance

2. Play on swings, slides and seesaws

3. Hanging upside down on furniture or the monkey bars

4. Rolling down hills

5. Playing catch

6. Jumping up and down on the spot, or on a trampoline

7. Skipping, running or jumping on different surfaces

8. Climbing over obstacles or jungle gyms

9. Swinging in a hammock or on a rocking horse

10. Cartwheels and somersaults

11. Leap frog and jump rope

Natural, physical play that children regularly engage in is so important in helping develop their Vestibular System. However, not all children gravitate to these kinds of activities. It’s important that we respect a child’s wishes to not participate in this type of play, but helping them learn to tolerate vestibular input is equally as important. If your child is uncomfortable with any of these activities, try encouraging them in small doses and slowly build up their tolerance.

Start with activities that keep a child’s feet securely on the ground. Things like yoga poses, playing the games like “Statues” or “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” can be good starting points.

When using equipment that they are unsure of like a trampoline, large ball, or scooter board, keep a firm hand or two on their shoulders, waist, or arm. The physical connection and deep pressure will be very grounding and help them feel reassured. Most importantly, help your child to communicate with you how they are feeling. Let them know you are there to help them, and to tell you know if they are feeling scared or dizzy.

References: Ornitz et al 1979; Nandi & Luxon 2008; Clark et al 1977

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