For Christmas, my kids all received various types of sensory swings, rings, and other things that are now hanging from their bedroom ceilings. The idea is that these all help their vestibular system — a concept we talked about in-depth in this podcast.
Before you think I’m a tad crazy for hanging swings indoors (I might be), let’s take a look at the vestibular system and what it does…
What Is the Vestibular System?
In short, the vestibular system is a sensory system that contributes to things like balance, sensory integration, and spatial orientation. Made of two structures in the bony labyrinth of the inner ear, this tiny system is responsible for a lot. Some even argue it is one of the most important senses in the body.
When the vestibular organs on both sides of the head work correctly, they send the same symmetrical signals to the brain. This lets a person feel balanced and have a good measure of spacial orientation. When the vestibular system is not functioning properly, it doesn’t send these signals correctly and can lead to sensory problems, lack of balance, and other issues.
Some experts estimate that many people in the modern world lack proper vestibular function due to a deficiency of activities that balance this system. In other words, people (especially children) with poor vestibular function don’t move as confidently and may struggle with balance or appear clumsy.
What Leads to Poor Vestibular Function
The easiest way to explain this is to look at the innate human activities of babies and children. When babies are upset, mothers often rock, bounce, or swaddle them… all types of sensory input that affect the sensory system.
When left to their own devices and allowed to be bored once in a while, most children find ways to climb, balance, swing, and hang upside down… also all vestibular activities.
The brain receives vestibular input every time we move our heads. Just moving our heads, sitting, walking, and regular movement mildly stimulate the vestibular system. More advanced movements like climbing, balance, swinging, and hanging upside down provide much more input.
Basically, the bigger the movement, the more the sensory input to the vestibular system.
Specialists now think this is one of the many reasons kids have such a strong natural desire to pursue these types of movement. This is also why it can be so problematic when we ” protect” them from moving this way.
We used to have merry-go-rounds, “dangerous” slides, high jungle gyms, and super long swings with rough ground underneath. Many of these have been replaced with “safer” options but our kids may be suffering from the switch. (For a great in-depth explanation, I highly recommend the book Balanced and Barefoot.)
Why Vestibular Stimulating Activities Are So Important
After my podcast with Carol, I started to understand just how important a child’s vestibular development is. She has seen dramatic results using vestibular activities and other types of treatments to help kids with sensory disorders, ADD, ADHD, and other struggles.
Carol explained that many children with underdeveloped vestibular function may not like swinging, climbing, or rough-housing, or may be cautious walking down stairs. On the flip side, kids who sense they need more sensory stimulation may seek out these activities and climb too high, love swings, and love to spin.
I decided to go on a mission to figure out how to make sure my own kids (and myself) were getting enough vestibular stimulation. My research journey led to a lot of reading (and many follow-up questions… sorry Carol!).
I realized from what I learned that as a child I probably didn’t spend as much time as I should have running, climbing, and hanging upside down, due to often being sick. Perhaps this was the reason I never liked activities that required balance or being upside down, like handstands.
So, I set a goal to conquer those struggles and make sure my kids never experienced them. Which led to some interesting improvements to our house!
(Also, before we go on, I want to clearly mention that I’m just a mom and not a doctor or specialist. I’m sharing from my own personal experience and research including podcast interviews with specialists. Children with specific sensory or vestibular issues should see a qualified specialist. I personally love and recommend Brain Harmony and they see patients virtually.)
For kids who aren’t used to these activities or exhibit any fear or trouble doing them, it seems especially important to consult a specialist and to work up to increase activity slowly!
Activities That Help Vestibular Function
As you may have guessed, anything that provides opportunity for movement can help the vestibular system. We all need to move more daily. Beyond that, there are some specific activities I found in researching that can specifically help. I wanted to optimize our home to make these activities possible and a natural part of our day.
(Note: Many of the links below are affiliate links. This means the price is the same for you but I receive a small commission that helps me keep creating new resources and the site running smoothly.)
My two youngest girls have a sensory swing in their room. The idea behind a sensory swing is that it provides multiple types of sensory engagement because it is stretchy, it swings, and it requires a lot of movement. Once a child makes it in, it also holds them tightly, which can be very soothing for children (same idea as swaddling a baby).
So far, they love them and I’ve even found them napping in them because they are so calming. Carol had these in her office and my girls are so excited to have one of their own now.
These are a little bit of a step up from the sensory swing. They can hold bigger kids and even adults! We hung one in each of our older kids’ rooms and now they use them all the time to swing, hang upside down, and stretch. I also may or may not be occasionally found upside down on these tying to fix my own vestibular system!
These swings are incredibly versatile and allow multiple types of sensory inputs. Kids (or adults) can swing, hang upside down, spin, and even learn some advanced arial moves.
You’ve seen these if you’ve ever been to a cirque show. Basically this is a really long piece of silk-like material that can be used for some amazing advanced movements.
Our girls have this aerial silk and have found endless ways to spin, climb, swing, and even make hammocks. They’re also deceptively tough (I tried them too!).
I got this idea from Carol as well. Brain Harmony has a specialized program called Safe and Sound that also help balance the brain. She sends a balance board home with this program and after we tried one, the kids wanted one for our house.
As the name suggests, these allow balance training. We have a wooden balance board that the kids often stand on during school time. I’ll sometimes stand on it during long podcast days too.
Bonus: I’ve noticed that I sleep better when I do sensory activities like this (and the kids do too!).
Similar to the balance board (just much tougher!) surf trainers like this one are basically a board balanced on top of a cylinder. If it sounds tough, it definitely can be! This is a favorite for my boys and my husband, who often compete to see how long they can balance.
In the same way that swings provide sensory input, hammocks do to a smaller degree. Just being in one or sleeping in one provides gentle vestibular input and many kids find this very soothing. Our three kids who sleep in bottom bunks have camping hammocks hanging diagonally across their bunk beds and often sleep in them.
Handstands and Cartwheels
These two free activities provide the benefits of being upside down. They’re also fun and a good workout too! All of my kids can do these and I’m working back up to doing a handstand. If you’re like me and find these movements more challenging (or if your kids can’t currently do them), there are some great tutorials online for learning how.
Skateboards and Rip Sticks
Balancing on skateboards and even more difficult rip sticks can also contribute to balance and help the vestibular system. Most kids also gravitate toward activities like this so it isn’t tough to get them to try it out. For kids who struggle to learn, there are some great tutorials for these as well.
Slack Lines and Balance Beams
We got a slack line years ago for our backyard and it has been a kid favorite ever since. It’s basically a stretchy flat rope that hangs between two trees and that you walk on like a balance beam. Some people have even figured out how to do flips and other tricks on these!
A simple adjustable jump rope can also be a great sensory and vestibular tool. Jumping rope is also amazing exercise and a really fun activity for kids. Bonus points if you still remember all the cool multiple rope, multiple jumper combos we all did as kids (yes, I’m that old).
Another great activity for vestibular input. Monkey bars were a childhood favorite for many of us but they’ve largely disappeared from playgrounds for fear of children falling. We’ve found a few good playgrounds that still have them, but we also decided to add a ninja line to our backyard. The ninja line is a little bit tougher than regular monkey bars because, like the slack line, it stretches and moves, and instead of bars, there are also hoops, rope balls, and other items that are tougher to grasp.
This is essentially just walking forward and backward on a smooth cylinder or log. I found that a foam roller or even a rumble roller works great for this and we now have competitions walking across the room on these.
Jumping on a Trampoline
The bigger the movement, the more vestibular stimulation, and jumping is a great large movement. There are many ways to accomplish this, but our kids prefer their backyard trampoline.
Bikes & Scooters
Bikes require a good amount of balance, and many of us rode our bikes for hours each day when we were younger. I’m so grateful to live in a neighborhood where my kids have the ability to roam freely on bikes whenever they want, and I hope all kids have the same opportunity.
Our older kids all have bikes from a local shop, but our youngest has a balance bike and it has been great for teaching her balance. Our next youngest had one of these for a couple of months and then transitioned to a regular pedal bike in about ten minutes.
Learning to Pay Attention to the Vestibular System
I never gave much thought to the vestibular system until I started learning about it after my interview with Carol. Now, I actively pay attention to the vestibular system and we’ve found some fun ways to support and improve it. Pretty much anything that involves movement supports vestibular function in some way and all sources agree that most of us need more movement.
Take a fresh look around your home and see what fun ways you can incorporate these activities. Your vestibular system will thank you!
Have you tried any of these specifically to support vestibular function? What were your results?