When you close your eyes, how do you know where your feet are? Your arms? Your hands? Proprioception is the internal sense that tells you where your body parts are without your having to look at them. This internal body awareness relies on receptors in your joints, muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue. They pick up information as muscles bend and stretch as well as when your body is still. The joints, muscles, and connective tissue in your buttocks, hips, and legs are compressed (pushed together) as you sit and read this. They are "distracted" (pulled apart) when you hang from a chin-up bar.
Information about body position travels through the spinal cord and into parts of the brain that are not conscious. Because of this, you are seldom aware of where your body parts are unless you actively think about them. As you read this book, your attention is focused on the concepts and information presented. You may be filtering out the sound of your children playing in the other room. Perhaps you're eating a snack. Whatever you are doing, you are probably not thinking about your body position. Yet you are not falling off your chair or the couch because sensory receptors are taking care of that for you.
Life for a child with impaired proprioception is not so easy. He's a "space cadet" because he doesn't know where his body is in space; there's no internal body map to ground him. He's not quite sure where any body part is at any given time unless he looks. Both moving and staying still take some conscious effort. Such kids may be physically clumsy or move slowly to compensate. Without proper proprioceptive input from his trunk and legs, your child might slide off a classroom chair, stumble on stairs, or fall when he runs.
Poor proprioception in the fingers makes it difficult to manage fine motor manipulations needed to write well, button clothing, and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without shredding the bread. Without being able to gauge the weight of things (think: compression of the joints), your child drops pencils or uses so much force to pick up things that he hits himself in the face.
Since proprioceptors detect the stretch and pull on muscles and joints, telling the brain just how much tension the muscles need, impaired proprioception robs the body of key information needed to maintain good muscle tone.
Laura, a preschooler Lindsey worked with, was an active, affectionate child at home, but her hugs were way too strong. At mealtimes, she spilled her juice, and her plate flew across the table onto the floor when she attempted to scoop up food with her spoon. She had a complete meltdown at her friend's birthday party when someone put a blindfold over her eyes to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and couldn't calm down until her mother hugged and rocked her for a very long time.
Laura wasn't being rough or destructive it's just that without the knowledge of how to apply the correct amount of force on things, she couldn't fine tune her movements because she was not getting reliable sensory information from inside her body. When blindfolded, Laura had no way to monitor her body and its position in space.
While Laura craved intense proprioceptive experiences, such as crashing into walls, banging toys, tumbling around in a pile of pillows, and general roughhousing to get stronger sensory messages, some children don't seek it out and may try to avoid such input as much as possible. They're the kids slumped over their desks like limp noodles while doing homework or who are usually "too tired" to play outside with the other children.
Common Signs of Body Awareness Problems
All children refine their body awareness as they mature. Compared to other children his age, does your child...
- seem to move awkwardly or stiffly?
- seem to be physically weaker than other children?
- use too little or excessive force on things (for example, has trouble attaching clothing snaps, pop beads, and Legos, writes way too light or too dark with a pencil, breaks toys often)?
- push, hit, bite, or bang into other children although he isn't an aggressive child?
- avoid or crave jumping, crashing, pushing, pulling, bouncing, and hanging?
- chew on clothing or objects more than other children do?
- always look at what he is doing (for example, he watches his feet when walking or running)?