If you are anything like me, you might feel nauseous on long car rides and avoid the Tilt-A-Whirl ride from the fair at all costs. This unpleasant feeling is linked to my vestibular system, and my very minimal need for input! Vestibular sensation is related to the position of the head in space and registers feelings like spinning, falling, or being upside down. Just like all other senses, every individual needs some level of vestibular input but the amount varies. Individuals that desire or need more vestibular input, also called having a high threshold, may seek out activities with big movements, like swinging or sliding, to fulfill this need. These individuals may love rollercoasters or rocking chairs. On the other hand, individuals that have a lower need for vestibular input may be reluctant to let their feet leave the ground or walk on uneven surfaces. This is often referred to as gravitational insecurity. They may also have challenges with syncing up their vision and movements to navigate their world safely.
Natural environments provide an excellent workshop for these skills. The Playcosystem, for example, provides opportunities for all individuals to participate at their comfort level and beyond. Children can challenge themselves and their vestibular system to scramble over varying terrain, swing or hang from ropes or tree branches, or slide down muddy hills. If you want to learn more about the vestibular system or upcoming projects that will support vestibular input through exploratory play, there are more details below!
Vestibular input is registered through the movement of fluid in the inner ears (semicircular canals) as the head is moved through space in a variety of movement patterns and in relation to gravity. For example, when doing a cartwheel, the fluid in the inner ear will move letting the brain know when you are upright, upside down, and then upright again. It is also related to coordination. Individuals with vestibular challenges may have a difficult time coordinating movements of their arms and legs or of their eyes and body as they move.
Although many opportunities for seeking vestibular input already exist at Bernheim, specifically the Playcosystem, the future holds even more exciting possibilities! As the Playcosystem expands, there are plans for installing challenge courses (that will be constructed with ADA compliance) and a variety of swings. These play experiences give those with a high threshold the opportunity to independently seek and fulfill their needs for vestibular input. It also gives those with a low threshold opportunities to practice their skills in a fun environment, which is correlated with desensitization (or decreased adverse response to the sensation) over time.
Author – Bri Marr. Bri is a doctoral capstone student from the Spalding University Auerbach School of Occupational Therapy working with the Children at Play Network from May to August, 2023. As part of her capstone experience she has created a series of blog posts on outdoor play through the lens of occupational therapy.