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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Developing the Senses - Vestibular

It's no secret that the Montessori method is focused on sensorial learning, especially for younger children. The materials that are used, the activities we choose - they all have a sensorial aspect. We are engaging a child through their senses to bring them into the work. This is supported by our modern understanding of how the brain works and how children learn. That's one of the most amazing things about Montessori to me, that so many of her discoveries are supported by modern research. 

"Put simply, the senses are the very beginning of learning. They deliver the raw information the brain needs to make sense of the world...The senses help us figure out how we feel about things. This in turn determines what we think, learn, and do in different situations." {A Moving Child is a Learning Child


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The classic "5 senses" are easily identified in Montessori spaces. But, did you know that there are two more senses that are incredibly important to child development, learning, and growth? I didn't until I ended up in Occupational Therapy a few years ago with my neurodiverse child. These systems - the vestibular and proprioceptive systems - are extremely important as well. 

What is the Vestibular Sense?


The vestibular system originates in a person's inner ear and controls many things including balance. It helps people know where they are in the world, helps people maintain vertical posture, and is essential for coordinated movement. Additionally, the vestibular system is essential in helping people concentrate, focus and be still. It helped me to learn that if you constantly feel like you are falling, would you be able concentrate? Without developing the vestibular system, children cannot be still, they are not able to develop coordination, and can have poor focus on everyday tasks. 


This system is strengthened and developed through movement. One of the many benefits of movement is that it builds the vestibular system, which is underdeveloped in children. From birth, kids need specific movement to help learn the balance, coordination and stillness that comes from a mature vestibular system. "In fact, sitting still  is one of the most advanced. demonstrations of vestibular maturity. And as we've said, the vestibular system is developed through movement. So, as upside down as this may seem, if you want a child to learn to sit still, you've got to let him move. {A Moving Child is a Learning Child}

Supporting the Vestibular Sense in Montessori Environments


Not all movement is created equal when it comes to the vestibular system. In particular, swinging, rolling, and spinning are ideal for activating the vestibular system. The amazing thing about children is that they often will often move in the ways that their body needs all on their own. (Neurodivergent children may need more support or greater amounts of input to feel regulated and get what they need.) So, the most important thing we can do to support the vestibular system is tolerate children's natural need to move. Respecting and valuing movement is our most important task. 


But there are also some specific things we can add to the environment to support the vestibular system including:

A rocking chair: perfect for getting some movement while reading or observing 
Rocking Toys: add toys that rock back and forth that children can choose. These could include a rocking horse, wobbel board, rocking boat, seesaw, or rocking board
Outdoor time: running, rolling, spinning, visit parks with merry-go-rounds/monkey bars (for upside down hanging)
Bending: Utilize bottom shelves, play games that touch your toes, dip your child down
Rocking and dancing: throughout the day, babies and toddlers can be rocked or danced with adults, older children can join on their own
Spinning: especially slowly and intentionally 
Swinging: add a swing to your home or outdoor environment 

In our home, adding an indoor swing was the best thing we've ever done for our kids and their vestibular needs. But swinging, rocking, and dancing are all parts of our every day lives. This list is not meant to be exhaustive. Again, just allowing and understanding the natural movements children make will often be the most important change we can make. 


Obviously, I'm not an occupational therapist or doctor so I will only provide a general overview here of the vestibular system. Read more about the vestibular system here: 


Montessori learning is all about engaging the senses. Here's a look at the vestibular sense and ideas to support it in Montessori homes.

Read about how to support other senses in Montessori environments here: Hearing | Visual | Taste | Touch

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Would you like to comment?

Little Miss Adventure said...

This is fascinating to me as my own balance and coordination isn’t great, and I want better for my baby. Looking forward to you writing more about proprioception too.