Let’s get Physical

Lets get Physical

What is our sense of movement?

Our sense of movement is our body’s way of understanding how to move in relation to the environment around us. It directs our actions and allows us to perform purposeful tasks in a controlled and accurate way i.e. we can walk up stairs without tripping. It is comprised mainly of two sensory systems: the Vestibular System and the Proprioceptive System.

What is the Vestibular system:

Our vestibular system is located in the inner ear and governs our understanding of the rate and direction of movement of our head in relation to the environment. It aids in developing our postural tone (so that we can sit up straight) and helps us create a mental image of the body relative to the environment (i.e. so that we are aware of our body boundaries and don’t walk into or fall over objects). It also assists with our development of equilibrium and balance. Children with difficulties in this sensory system are likely to have poor sitting posture and tend to slouch, have under-developed balance reactions and may avoid participating in movement-related activities.

What is the Proprioceptive System:

The receptors of the proprioceptive system are located in our joints and muscle tendons and detect changes in the positions of our limbs, trunk and neck. This then allows us to have an accurate awareness of where our limbs are in space and thus enable us to control the rate and force of movement necessary to perform a certain action. If for example, the proprioception from our hands was not sufficient, it would be extremely difficult to button clothes, take something out of a pocket or put a lid on a jar. Children whose proprioceptive systems aren’t functioning adequately, tend to be clumsy and battle to perform well-controlled and accurate movements. They are often clumsy and appear to have a poor sense of where their own body boundaries are.

How does movement develop:

  • The vestibular nuclei appear 9 weeks after conception and already begin to function by the 10th or 11th week in utero. The vestibular system is well-developed by the 5th month. This system is stimulated throughout the pregnancy by the movement of the mother’s body.
  • A newborn already shows responses to gravity by showing alarm when suddenly lowered.  This is his brain telling him that he is going to fall!
  • A one-month old will attempt to lift his head when it’s resting on his parents shoulder as gravity stimulates his brain to activate the neck muscles to raise the head.
  • It is also noted that movement e.g. carrying or rocking an infant brings comfort and relaxation.
  • At 2 – 3 months, the eyes and neck are the first parts that the infant learns to control; he then learns to lift his chest off the floor and balance his head when sitting with support.
  • At 3 months old his hands are open most of the time and he starts to reach – although these movements lack the necessary eye-hand coordination to make his reach accurate.
  • At 4 – 6 months one of the most important developments is when the infant learns to spontaneously brings his hands together so that they touch each other. You will also notice that the infant starts to use more planning in his movements, guided by gravity, movement and sight. He will also begin to pull up against gravity when lying on his chest.
  • By 6 – 8 months, your child is sitting independently and is starting to become more mobile. He starts to crawl and creep and can use his thumb and forefinger to pick up very small objects.
  • From 9 – 12 months all the integration of gravity, movement and muscle and joint sensations of the months before, result in standing!  During the first and second years he will learn to walk and climb and will start exploring the environment by pushing and pulling objects.
  • During the third to seventh years he will learn to run, jump, hop, skip, roll, climb and swing. He starts to show improved balance and eye-hand coordination and thus movement control and accuracy improves.

How to recognise if your child’s movement systems aren’t functioning adequately:

  • Delayed development of motor skills such as sitting, crawling and walking.
  • Difficulty with sports.
  • Difficulty learning new skills like skipping, hopping, catching a ball.
  • Clumsiness i.e. walking into or falling over objects.
  • Difficulty with sitting upright and slouching when sitting at a table.
  • Difficulty with tasks that require the use of both hands or both sides of the body, such as doing jumping jacks, tying shoelaces or riding a bicycle.
  • Avoidance of gross motor equipment e.g. swings, slides and jungle-gyms.
  • Avoidance of sports.

What is gravitational insecurity:

Some children experience excessive emotional reactions to movement that is typically nonthreatening.  This is called Gravitational Insecurity. It is manifested as a fear of movement, being out of the upright position or having one’s feet off the ground. This fear results in the child avoiding movement experiences that are typically part of a child’s repertoire of games and activities. They may avoid slides, swings and climbing on playground apparatus. This in turn results in a loss of opportunity to develop gross motor skills and balance that come from engaging in these tasks.

How to stimulate development of the movement systems:

According to Occupational Therapist, Raleen van Niekerk, movement experiences are essential for a developing child in order to develop good posture, stability strength and balance. Being active also develops skills like eye-hand coordination which we need for writing and bilateral integration (using the two sides of the body together) which is necessary for cutting. Movement develops eye-muscle control thus leading to improved accuracy in reading and copying off the board.

  • Make time every day for physical activity! Encourage your child to participate in extracurricular sporting activities.
  • It is important that your child explore different positions i.e. lying on his stomach, lying on his back, sitting, crawling, kneeling, walking, running etc.
  • Spend time outdoors where your child can learn to navigate different movement opportunities e.g. rolling down hills, climbing in trees, swimming, cycling etc.
  • Encourage activities that require balance such as swinging, surfing, ice-skating and skateboarding.
  • Spend time playing games that develop coordination of movement of the eyes, head and hands such as tennis, catching, throwing, volleyball etc.

Interesting fact:

Movement has a significant impact on our regulation and sense of arousal (levels of alertness). Slow, rhythmical movements like rocking, swaying and gentle swinging exert a calming input on an infant. This is why an infant will often fall asleep when rocked or when driven in the car. Fast, irregular or spinning movements have an alerting impact e.g. when you swing your infant through the air or throw him up and catch him.


Written by Tamaryn Hunter – BSc (Occupational Therapy – Occupational Therapist)

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