There Are Actually 7 Senses, And This One Often Flies Under The Radar

little boy playing hopscotch on playground
little boy playing hopscotch on playground outdoors

Let’s count them off, okay? The five senses. Touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing. That’s it, right? I remember in elementary school really digging into those five. What does it sound like? Smell like? Feel like? My four-year-old loves this book about a missing kitten. Each page has something from the five senses on it, and it guides her through each one to find out that the cat on that particular page isn’t her missing kitten because it’s paws are too rough, or it’s bell is too shiny. I studied writing in college, and the five senses were huge. My instructors would write in the margins of my papers “What did the room smell like” or “What color was the carpet?”

But it was always five, never seven.

Time for a confession, until recently, I had no idea that there are actually seven senses. In fact, there’s an online movement to recognize the other two: vestibular and proprioception.

Now check it out, I had a hard time pronouncing these too, so perhaps that’s the issue with them catching on, but just so we are all on the same page, proprioception deals with sensing what your different body parts are doing without looking at them. But the sense I really want to discuss in this article is the vestibular sense, also known as the balance sense, because it’s pretty important to children.

If you’ve got a young kid at home, you’ve probably wrestled them off the back of the couch, or asked them to stop leaping from the coffee table to the easy chair, or looked at them with confused eyes, trying to figure out how they were able to do an arched crab walk across the living room without actually breaking in half. All those wiggles and flexibility, and leaping and spinning and hanging upside down that toddlers and preschoolers love so much, that’s them developing their vestibular sense.

According to a recent article by 100 Hours Outside, “The vestibular sense goes back to the incredibly small hairs inside the inner ear. When we move, the fluid in our ears moves and stimulates those hairs, sending the brain information about where our body is in space. The more a child is out of an upright position, the more the fluid will move over the hairs, and the stronger the vestibular sense will become.”

I often look at half of the wild things my four-year-old feels compelled to do and wonder if she is either 100% fearless (which is probably true) or simply wants to give me a heart attack, or both. Probably both. But it turns out she’s actually trying to develop her inner balance, so the frustrating reality is, all that risky stuff she does actually serves an important purpose. Yes, I am aware that I just said a four-year-old did something with a purpose. Here we are.

Naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder what happens if a child doesn’t develop their vestibular sense? Well, that’s a good question, and according to a recent article in the Washington Post on why children shouldn’t spend so much time sitting at a desk, “Changes in body position help develop the vestibular system… and physical activity… helps develop the executive function part of the brain where new learning is processed. Executive function includes cognition, organization, focus, emotional regulation, and the ability to multitask, all of which help students succeed academically.”

I don’t want to state the obvious, but those are all some important functions, and I would like my children to have them all functioning to the best of their ability.

But here’s the catch, getting children out on uneven ground where they can wiggle, hang, swing, tumble, and run isn’t as easy as it used to be. When my oldest two were little, we lived in an apartment complex on the 3rd floor. There wasn’t a playground, the people below us seemed to be always banging on the ceiling because our children were being too rambunctious, and I once got threatened with a fine for allowing my kids to use sidewalk chalk (yeah, the place sucked, but let’s stay focused).

It wasn’t as easy as sending them into the back yard. I had to drive them to the park, which I actually loved doing, but at the same time it took… well, time — which, as young father struggling to make ends meet, I didn’t exactly have an abundance of. There’s also the reality that playground equipment in America isn’t what it once was. It’s safer now, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but gone are the days of the wickedly awesome merry go round and those massive seesaws that really got the juice flowing in a child’s inner ear.

And, frankly, children are spending more time in the classroom, and less time outside. According to a recent New York Times report, some elementary schools are offering as little as 20 minutes of unstructured play per day. Yeah, think about how bad that sucks for our kids, and how it can impede their development.

Engaging in activities that hone the vestibular sense can be overwhelming and challenging for kids with sensory processing issues. But according to the Springbrook Autism Behavioral Health, website vestibular sensory integration activities such as the following can be comfortable ways for a child on the spectrum to develop the 7th sense:

– Swinging

– Sliding

– Riding a rocking horse

– Jumping on a trampoline

Springbrook Autism Behavioral Health also notes, “Any movement activity will engage the vestibular system, and vestibular activities can be both stimulating for the under-responsive child and calming for the over-responsive or sensory seeking child.” It’s important to be sensitive to your child’s needs and limits, and never to force movement.

I think what this all boils down to is that it is important for us to acknowledge the vestibular sense, because as parents, we are going to need to help our children develop it. And yeah, I get it. The last thing any parent needs is one more thing to worry about, but if you needed an excuse to let the kids play a little more on the furniture, here it is. If you were looking for a good reason to get out of the house and hit the park, you’ve got one. If you’re wondering why you’re running around town to get your kids to their various sports’ activities, here’s the reason. And if you are the kind of person with a desire to move gears at your school, ask for more recess time, because it is, in fact, important. You’ve got proof.