Vestibular System: Bring Back Playground Equipment with a Little Danger
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When I was in elementary school, we had an awesome playground. We called it the big toy. It was this massive wooden fortress. One side had rows and rows of monkey bars and rings. We had bars we could swing around on and dangle upside down from. We had multiple slides, tires to climb, bridges to cross, fire poles, and it was the perfect set up for playing tag. I’ve since been back to that same school and the playground made me want to cry a little. I’m not even sure you could consider the current playground as being a quarter of the size of the old one. They have a few low slides, very little to climb, no rings, no bars to dangle from and tag is out of the question. It’s very safe and also very boring.
So it’s no surprise to me to see a rise in the reports of children with ADHD diagnoses and learning disabilities, and to hear kids proficient in school claiming it’s boring. Playground free-play stimulates the vestibular system. The vestibular system, located in the inner ear, is responsible for balance and coordination. Carol Stock Kranowitz in the Out of Sync Child, says, “The vestibular system tells us where our heads and bodies are in relation to the surface of the earth. It tells us whether we are upright, upside down, or at a tilt; and whether objects are moving or motionless in relation to our body. It also informs us where we are going and how fast, and if we are in danger or in a relaxing place.”
With the decrease in play that is taking place between the increases in screen time and the excessive need to make playgrounds “safe,” vestibular systems aren’t getting the movement necessary for proper development. Children with under developed vestibular systems “do not function properly, making it difficult for them to modulate, discriminate, coordinate, or organize balance and movement sensations adaptively,” Kranowitz said.
Luckily, we haven’t lost all of the right playground equipment. Some parks even still have old school equipment if you know where to look. So here’s a look at the types of movements the vestibular system craves and playground equipment that gives it what it wants.
Swings are the obvious choice for this category. Swings come in all shapes and sizes from classic swings to tire swings and hammocks. The rocking motion gets the fluid of the inner ear moving and swings are versatile. Children can sit on them and lay their chests across them. Honestly, the ways children utilize them are about as creative as the kids using them. The rocking motion can soothe an overactive and fidgeting child or stimulate one that is dragging. Monkey bars are also good for swinging. The way the arms have to take turns is also good for promoting coordination. Another uncommon piece of equipment is the Barrel Roll, like you see here. It’s a giant tube children can climb in that they can use to simply rock back and forth or they can crawl up the walls and get the whole thing moving. It’s pretty versatile and the enclosed space appeals to our sensory sensitive friends who crave secure surroundings.
Some playgrounds have balance beams to traverse or stepping-stones to step across. Testing their balance is the only way for their bodies to learn better balance. Improved balance can help a child sit upright in their chair better so they spend less time with their head on their desk. In the absence of a beam or other equipment you can also use a balance board like you see here or the curb around the edge of the play area and they’d probably love it to see you get involved in the games while you’re encouraging them to try.
Trampolines aren’t common fixtures at public parks, but they are common in backyards and trampoline parks are growing in popularity. So if you’re not a fan of parking one in your backyard, you can always swing over to one of these fun centers. Some of the parks have obstacle courses as well, which are perfect for encouraging skillful movement. Or, you can just buy a small fitness trampoline like you see here that your child can use in the living room. Therapy balls, like you see here, are also good for promoting bouncing and a variety of other movements and balance.
Spinning is a motion that most kids seek out on their own. They spin with their arms out in open spaces, they roll down hills, they spin around in your office chair (I’m still guilty of that one from time to time). They are few and far between, but some parks still have merry-go-rounds, those fun contraptions where a few kids run in circles until they get it moving at a good pace and jump on for the ride. This will definitely get the fluid of the inner ear in motion. If none of your local parks are rocking these gems, you can get a sit-and-spin like you see here. These are the little circles they sit on and wrap their legs around the center pole and use the wheel in the middle to dictate what direction and how fast they move.
Climbing trains the body to be aware of its surroundings and tests weight and strength against gravity. I have to give props to a lot of the new playground sets for having rock climbing walls. These are great for practicing climbing and stimulating the imagination. Stairs, ladders, and walls with a climbing rope are all great for promoting your little ones’ vestibular systems. More homes are adding climbing walls to their own home or spare bedroom. If you want to create your own try the climbing wall equipment here.
Just make sure to keep an eye on them and don’t let them overdo it in one session. Too much stimulation can trigger agitation or anxiety. However, the benefits of playgrounds are endless and very few kids are getting enough.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs
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