25 Sensory Play Activities for Vestibular Input & How The Vestibular System Works
Sensory play is an essential part of childhood development. Our senses provide us with vital information thousands of times per day and starting from birth children use their senses to explore and learn about the world around them.
Vestibular input activities can provide some of the best stimulation for active sensory seeking kids which can keep their sensory needs met for hours.
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This post is part of a 10 part series on the sensory systems. Each part will contain a table of contents to help you easily navigate through the entire series.
Table of Contents:
- Introduction – The Sensory Spectrum
- The Tactile System
- The Auditory System
- The Visual System
- Vestibular System
- The Olfactory System
- The Oral-Motor System
- Bilateral Coordination
It’s so important to provide opportunities for sensory play for your kids every single day. There are many benefits for kiddos with autism to engage in regular sensory play – including cognitive development, increased brain function, improved emotional regulation, and heightened ability to process new information (better learning).
How Does the Vestibular System Work?
The vestibular system is your sense of movement. The organs that control the vestibular system are located in the inner ear and include the vestibular nerve and the semicircular canals.
I’m going to actually show you a diagram of the ear because it’s so interesting and I’ve read a lot online about vestibular input activities but no one ever really explains how the vestibular system works.
So the semicircular canals are three tiny fluid-filled tubes located in the inner ear and they are part of the vestibular system. Their job is to help you maintain your balance. When you move your head around the fluid inside the tubes move over tiny hairs inside the canals. This creates nerve messages sent to your brain which lets your brain know what you need to do in order to stay balanced.
The vestibular nerve transmits sensory information to the brain based on the position of the head in relation to the body. It plays a role in balance, and motor planning.
Two other parts of the vestibular system are shown below – the utricle and saccule. This diagram is basically a zoomed in version of the inner ear part of the first diagram.
The saccule and the utricle are both beds of sensory cells that detect linear movement. The saccule detects horizontal movements and the utricle detects vertical movements.
The vestibular system is really complicated, and these are just the basics but together these parts of the inner ear work to keep us balanced, coordinated, and aware of our body movements. The vestibular system works very closely with the proprioceptive system to control movements.
What Does Vestibular Seeking Behavior Look Like?
A lot of kids with additional sensory needs like those with autism, ADHD, and SPD, display vestibular seeking behavior. My son is a huge vestibular input seeker. Here are some signs to watch out for:
- In constant motion – meaning they must be moving at all times, to the point that it interferes with their daily life. These are the kids that are constantly fidgeting, can’t stay seated, are rolling around and jumping on the sofa, etc.
- Rocking, spinning, and other types of stimming, may not even be aware they’re doing it.
- A thrill seeker – they probably love roller coasters or fast amusement park rides.
- May seem to never get dizzy – my son literally does not get dizzy ever.
Related: Calm Down by Hanging Upside Down
What Causes Dizziness?
This is more of a side note but I wanted to include it because it’s super fascinating and so many kids with additional sensory needs love to spin! Where I can feel dizzy just watching my kids, they can spin relentlessly without getting dizzy.
Like I mentioned earlier, the semicircular canals are fluid filled and send signals to your brain based on the position of your head to help you maintain your balance. When you’re spinning, this fluid is moving around and around, just like you are.
When you stop moving, the fluid in your semicircular canals keeps moving (Like when you make a whirlpool inside a water bottle). It takes a while for the fluid to settle. So while it’s moving over those tiny hairs, signals are being sent to your brain as if you were still spinning, which causes you to feel dizzy and have problems with your balance.
Vestibular Input Activities
The key to the best vestibular input activities is finding things for kids to do that involve a lot of movement. Kids can usually find a way to do this themselves but in a way that’s undesirable for us (like doing somersaults on the sofa).
Planned activities at regular intervals throughout the day can prevent sensory seeking behavior when it’s most important – like during class when you want your kiddo to stay in their seat. Occupational therapists recommend “sensory snacks”, which is an activity that is 5-10 minutes long every 1-2 hours.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Hanging Upside Down
This is my favorite activity to recommend to anyone with sensory seeking kids. Read here about how you can actually help kids calm down by hanging upside down. There are many ways you can do this: let your kids hang off the couch, the monkey bars, or set them on your lap and slowly lower them backward by their arms.
The amount of vestibular input the brain receives from hanging upside down is really powerful because it’s such a unique experience. It can help keep sensory seekers calm for hours.
Some kids are sensitive to hanging upside down so never push your child to do something they don’t want to do.
Like I mentioned, spinning is a great vestibular input activity and depending on your child and how sensitive they are to becoming dizzy you may be able to do activities with fast spinning, or you may need to do slower more rhythmic spinning activities.
- Spin your child around in an office chair
- Play ring around the Rosie
- Roll down a big grassy hill
- For toddlers: the Sit n Spin
- For older kids: the Dizzy Disc
- Get your child to lay on their belly on a swing, twist it up and then let it go.
Games you can play at home
Whether you’re inside or outside, there are tons of games you can play at home to get your kids moving for lots of vestibular input.
- Freeze dance
- Put shoe boxes on your feet and go “skating” around the house
- Play Simon says
- Try this 7-minute activity that improved emotional regulation
- Push your child around on a scooter board
- Jump on a mini trampoline
- Make a tire swing for your yard, or get an indoor swing (see 10 therapy swings for under $100)
- Make an indoor obstacle course – use furniture, make lines with some tape they must walk on, or tape across doorways to crawl under, etc. (This is great for a laid back rainy day but not an activity I could personally do every day)
- Jump rope
- Blow bubbles outside and have your kids run around trying to pop them
- Play a game of tag
- Bounce on a stability ball
- Get your child a rocking chair
Activities for when you can’t get up and move around
It can be exceptionally difficult for kids who are active sensory seekers to sit still – like in the classroom, long car rides, and waiting rooms. You should try to plan vestibular input activities before periods of time where kids are expected to sit. This will reduce their need for fidgeting and movement.
But what can you do when you can’t get up and move around, but your child is struggling?
- Get them to imitate your head movements – tilt your head up and down, left and right, or shake it back and forth and get your child to copy you. The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and this will give some sensory input without moving the rest of the body.
- For school, or appointments, try bringing along an inflatable wobble disk for their seat – this will help your child’s core strength and balance, and also allow them to wiggle around in their seats without being noisy and distracting the people around them.
Looking for more sensory play activities?
The vestibular system and the proprioceptive system work very closely together. For more ideas visit my post 30 Proprioceptive Input Activities to Calm Sensory Seekers
Also, read 30 Unique Sensory Play Ideas for even more activities that involve all of the senses.