What Is Our “Sixth Sense” and How Does It Affect Our Kids?

by Meghan Fitzgerald

What is proprioception?

Often called our sixth sense, proprioception is not, in fact, the ability to talk to dead people (though we loved that movie). An easy way to think about proprioception is the feeling of pressure in the joints, ligaments and muscles of the body—the pressure sensed when our body hits up against something and gets feedback—as when we jump, push or pull something heavy. 

Young children get this from activities like chewing, jumping, stomping, crawling, climbing, pushing, pulling, or stretching.

Why is proprioception important?

We use proprioception to understand, without looking, where our bodies are in space and where body parts are in relation to one another. Close your eyes and try to touch your finger to your nose. You could not do that without proprioception.

Proprioception also lets us know how much pressure to use when we move or interact and helps us hold our muscles when resting or maintaining our balance. This is important for most daily tasks, including walking around, sitting up, to getting a cup full of water successfully to our mouths, to giving a hug with the right pressure or playing a game of tag with friends! Kids are still learning how to manage their bodies, how to interact, and how to perform nearly every daily task, so this need for coordination and the right amount of pressure is critical for them.

Proprioceptive input also helps to center or calm our systems down. As an elementary school principal, I used to welcome teachers to offer friends who were having trouble settling into learning the invitation to bring a large book to my office. They nearly always took us up on the offer. And, they not only felt great to be helpers, but that chance to walk, climb stairs and do some “heavy work” was often the reset that kiddos needed.

The state of proprioception

Kids’ lives have changed dramatically. Studies show that kids today spend, at best, 50% of the time we did outdoors. Kids have lost 12 hours of playtime out of each week since 1970—that is a huge loss, and a big chunk of their waking hours. As a nation, we gave ourselves a D- on our US Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth with more than ¾ of our kids failing to get the minimum required daily physical activity.

More and more, we spend time seated and still, and many kids interact with screens, giving little to no input to their muscles and joints as they do. All of these trends add up to kids losing out on the kinds of activities that deliver proprioception.

What happens when proprioception is out of balance?

If a child is lacking proprioception, they will likely over-index on activities that give strong proprioceptive input such as jumping or stomping instead of walking, crashing into things, frequent chewing, or hanging off of things. If a child is hypersensitive to proprioceptive input, they may avoid activities that stimulate joints, walk lightly or slowly, use too little pressure during tasks, or struggle to sit upright.

What kinds of outdoor activities support proprioception?

Fortunately, the great outdoors are full of opportunities for kids to gather proprioceptive input. And, with our support, children can often decide on the level of intensity with which they engage in outdoor movement activities. If they need a lot of input, they can climb on larger logs or higher up in a tree. Need less? It’s easy to pick smaller tasks.

Here are just a few of our favorites:

  • BABIES: Mouthing (Yes! Mouthing activates proprioception in the jaw!)

  • BABIES: Tummy time, crawling, grasping objects

  • Toddling, walking, or running

  • Climbing on logs, rocks, or trees

  • Throwing/catching balls 

  • Fort play

    • Hauling sticks and other building materials

    • Crawling in and out of the built fort

  • Wheelbarrow walks or just crawling or spending time on all fours

  • Jumping, stomping, and parading about

  • Transporting heavy objects (e.g., large sticks, logs, rocks) around

  • Carrying a bag or backpack with objects inside

  • Blowing bubbles

  • Nice, strong hugs

Wondering about your child’s sensory processing?

Early on, it can feel challenging to understand what about a child’s reaction to their environment is/is not cause for concern. We may notice that our child appears to either seek or avoid proprioceptive input, but is that just part of their approach as a learner? And, will they thrive in time given regular opportunities to engage in activities that offer proprioceptive input? Or, might a child struggle with integrating sensory input in such a way that they would benefit from specific, expert support? 

If you are concerned, connect with doctors and school staff (if applicable). There are also organizations like Understood.org and the Child Mind Institute that offer accessible resources and supportive community. 

Keep learning about the senses!

Indeed, our bodies and our senses are elegant, complicated things. But, just a little knowledge about how they work and how to support the natural sensory development process our kiddos were designed to experience can make a huge impact on our kids’ learning. Keep learning more with us!

Or, come to Tinkergarten this Fall and learn about how to support your child’s sensory development with us. Find classes in your area at tinkergarten.com/classes.