The Proprioception System – On My Own Two Feet

Know where you stand. We know this figuratively, but how about literally? How do we literally understand where we are and how we move amongst other objects and people in our environment? The proprioceptive system is designed to help us understand our physical sense in this world and how we physically interact with it.

What is Proprioception?

Coming from the Latin proprio- meaning “ones own”, the proprioceptive system is responsible for understanding the location of limbs, the position of joints, and the speed and force of our muscles. It helps us define the contents of our body regarding where it starts and where it ends. The system receives its information from receptors in our muscles, skin, joints, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissue. When they stretch, bend, or contract, they notify the brain on where and how the movement occurs. The system and the brain are in constant communication, so operations can happen both subconsciously (as seen when we hold ourselves upright when standing or sitting) and consciously (when we actively reach for a glass of water) without much thought.

How Important is Proprioception?

Proprioception has close ties with the tactile (touch) and vestibular (movement) systems. Together, they form one’s sense of self. They are also essential for one’s emotional security to appropriately interact with their surroundings. Proprioceptive functions include:

  • Informing us of where our body is in space and how are body parts relate to one another
  • Contributing to motor planning and control necessary for sequential and coordinated movement to complete actions fluidly, efficiently, and economically
  • Teaming up with the tactile system to complete tasks that require touch and body position, such as holding a pencil when writing
  • Helping the vestibular system with activities that need both understanding of head and body position, like throwing or catching a ball
  • Contributing to visual perception. The more we move the better we make sense of what we see. An example would be understanding shapes, like a circle. We can’t draw a circle until we can move our body parts in a circular motion.
  • Modulating arousal level. Proprioception calms and organizes the body, regardless if we are over- or under-stimulated.

When the system is functioning as it should, we are able to: feel safe and secure in our surroundings, direct and sustain attention to presented tasks, move without hesitation, and use our bodies automatically to perform motor skills without actively thinking about them (like walking).

What Happens if the System is Faulty?

You know the scene in the movie, Can’t Hardly Wait where William starts screaming, “I can’t feel my legs. I HAVE NO LEGS!” after too many drinks? His proprioception is hindered.

If the system is not working well, kids would have difficulties interpreting the position and movements of their bodies, leaving them unsettled or disconnected with themselves and everything around them. More than likely, the tactile and/or vestibular systems are not operating efficiently either.

Corresponding effects would be:

  • Body awareness – difficulties knowing where they are and how they are physically engaging in their environment, using their vision to compensate.
  • Motor control – difficulties controlling large and fine motor movement, like when playing a sport or using utensils.
  • Grading of movement – difficulties gauging and adapting how much effort is required to interact with objects, such as picking up a 6-pack of soda versus a loaf of bread.
  • Postural stability – difficulties subconsciously stabilizing their trunks when sitting, standing, or walking.
  • Motor planning – difficulties planning and sequencing motor actions to complete a task, such as putting on socks and shoes.
  • Emotional security – not confident with their body and how it moves, resulting in avoidance to novel activities.

The Over-Responsive: Thanks, I’ll Pass

There are some kids that don’t like proprioceptive input. They squirm when you give them tight hugs or when their joints passively moved (like when teaching them how to put on/take off clothes), because they can’t process the feeling appropriately. They may also be picky eaters since some food textures require coordinated chewing. Because they have difficulties with body awareness, they are rigid and tense in their movements. This affects their participation in any activity that requires unusual positions or coordinated actions. P.E. is not their favorite class.

The Under-Responsive: The Klutz

These kids can’t “feel where they are” and therefore will compensate in various fashions. For example, they may fix their elbows to their ribs when writing or lock their knees tightly together when standing. They can also be described as clumsy and, not realizing their own strength, may break objects on accident (think Wreck-it-Ralph). They also might not notice the tingling sensations of their body telling them to change positions because their foot is asleep.

The Seeker: Bam, Zoom, Right to the Moon

These are the kids that are going 90 mph, literally and figuratively. They are the ones running at light speed only to crash into something…and do it again. They crave the heavy input in their muscles and joints, and their methods to get it are not for the faint of heart (crash landings, rough housing, base jumping). The seeking can be so intense for some that they may resort to aggressive means, such as biting, kicking, or hitting themselves.  

How Can We Help?

Proprioception is one of the safest sensory inputs to provide for children, and its versatility can either increase alertness or decrease anxiety. Also, its organizing effects can last for a couple of hours, allowing a child to focus and participate in activities appropriately.

(Heavy) Work Don’t Hurt – Proprioception is best activated through resistance and pressure. Provide your child with activities that require pushing, pulling, lifting, squeezing, or carrying hefty items. What’s great about this kind of input is that you don’t need to come up with structured activities. They can be embedded into daily chores. So, have them open the heavy doors for you, carry the groceries into the house, take the trash out, or carry a basket of laundry. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Feel the (Deep) Pressure – Children who fidget, especially in their seats, are looking for input to maintain and organize their arousal level. Think about how we are when we stand in line or sitting at our desks for too long, we fidget and get antsy and so we move our bodies. Deep pressure activities can provide a calming effect to ease the restlessness. Think stress balls, chewing gum, heavy or weighted blankets, bear hugs, or even hand squeezes and massages.

Sensory Systems Assemble! – If your child is not a fan of proprioception, other systems (like tactile and vestibular) may be a contributing factor. Combine them with proprioceptive input. Hold or hug your child on your lap or while rocking them in a chair, or have them play with resistive substances like Silly Putty or Play-Doh.

Let Them Run Wild – The playground is the best place for your child get this input. They can hang, climb, jump, crawl, push, pull, lift, you name it. Let them experiment how to move about the equipment as this will help with motor planning and coordination, like an obstacle course. If you are stuck inside for the day, let them get the couch cushions and make a fort or use pillows to play Floor is Lava.

Mindful Movements – For the children who have difficulties understanding where their limbs are, activities that bring awareness to their actions is key. Activities like Simon Says, Hokey Pokey, Copycat, or mindful practices like Yoga or Tai Chi allow your child to have active recognition of where they are in space and how they are moving through it.

If you think your child may have a proprioceptive issue, or issues with any of the other Hidden Senses that affect their daily routine and participation, ask for a consultation with an Occupational Therapist trained in sensory integration.

Barker, Laura, MA, OTR. Sensory Processing: Behavior, Memory and Learning. Live lecture. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Atlanta GA. 2012.

Kranowitz, C. (2005). The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder.  New York, NY: A Perigee Book.

Kranowitz, C. (2003). The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun: Activities for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder.  New York, NY: A Perigee Book.

Mauro, T. (2006). The Everything Parent’s Guide to Sensory Integration Disorder. Avon, MA: Adams Media.

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