The following post was writting by Marcia Washington OTR/L, who has been practicing pediatric occupational therapy for 20 years.
Parents often ask me –
What is sensory integration and how can I help my child with it?
Here’s my explanation: Picture yourself in the middle of a lake sitting in a row boat. You stand up to see something off in the distance. When you stand up, you feel the unsteady movement underneath your feet. Are you able to steady yourself as the boat moves under you? You decide the view is breathtaking and pull your camera up to your face from around your neck. You are now looking through a lens and focusing on a distant picture all while maintaining control of your body on an unsteady surface.
How well are you able to do this, would this be a high challenge for you or not even take a second thought? Are your senses fully integrated during that challenge, can you meet the demands of the task? This is sensory integration.
We all have sensory “preferences” and things that cause us to feel an imbalance to our nervous system. However, if you are able to maintain a steady control from the outside in: body in space, senses in check and emotions not exploding continuously then you are experiencing typical sensory integration. Your coping skills allow you to stay “in check.”
Sensory integration means our senses are complementing each other rather than out of balance. Our senses are more than the 5 outward senses we learn as a young child in the classroom. Yes, they include hearing, tasting, smelling, seeing and touch. However, they also include the vestibular sense and the proprioceptive sense, which give us information from inside our bodies and helps us balance and coordinate our movements.
What are the Vestibular Senses?
The vestibular system is very important to a child’s early development. The vestibular sense perceives balance, spacial orientation, and equilibrium. This system relays information to the brain that tells us where we are in space in relation to gravity.
If our vestibular system is not functioning well, we would not be able to stand in that row boat.
What is the Proprioceptive Sense?
Proprioreception is your inner experience of where your body is and what it’s doing. It’s what allows us to pick up the camera and plant our feet to stabilize our bodies in the row boat. Proprioceptors are found in our muscles and tell us where our bodies are and what our bodies are doing.
In the video below, Rafe Kelley, founder of Evolve Move Play, presents a valuable distinction between that which fills our attention and feeds our monkey minds and that which nourishes our humanity and fuels our personal development. It’s a valuable lens through which to assess our own lives.
How is the stimulation of a plugged in life affecting me? How do I spend my time? Am I filling my life with fluff or with meaning? Are my choices aligned with my values? Do I feel full and enriched or empty and depleted? Are there parts of me that are starving… for connection, expression, integration? Am I so busy that I’ve disconnected from myself, my health, my relationships, my dreams? Are my passions being replaced with addictions? What am I modeling for my children? What are my rules around technology for them?
As an educator and a parent, I believe distinguishing stimulation from nourishment is an essential lens through which to assess the lives and development of our children. Given the technologizing of childhood, it’s imperative that we protect the growing brain from the proven negative consequences of over-stimulation and inappropriate stimulation. We need to understand what is truly nourishing for the whole child or we risk a generation of kids who are dysregulated, out of synch with their own natures, and regulating through consumption.
In his TED Talk, Media and Children, pediatrician and researcher Dr. Dimitri Christakis, explains how over-stimulation from fast-paced and/or violent TV watching or other screen time actually damages the developing brain’s ability to pay attention and learn. He advocates for the nourishment of cognitive stimulation in early childhood instead. Cognitive stimulation comes from whole child engaging activities such as block play, reading, singing, dancing, cooking, etc. with parents and care-givers. Children who spend plenty of time getting nourished in these ways have very few attention or self-regulation issues later in life. Conversely, children, especially those under the age of 3, who watch lots of non-educational, inappropriately paced TV, have much higher rates of attention, regulation, and learning issues.
In a recent Movement and Mindfulness™ Curriculum Certification, our trainer, Leah Kalish, MA, taught us about “being in the Vertical versus Horizontal.” She was speaking to the idea of self-care. That it behooves every teacher or parent or caregiver to make taking care of oneself a priority, even before attending to our children. Just like those oxygen masks in airplanes!
This concept was a revelation for me. I realized that in my own parenting I was constantly in horizontal mode; trying valiantly to make things happen for my kids. “Here, let me teach you about how this works” or “Let me help with you that.” Which left me feeling frazzled, overwhelmed, and exhausted. There was always so much to do. In horizontal mode we are thinking outside ourselves, multi-tasking, and anywhere but centered in our own spot. We appear to be getting a lot accomplished, but the energy we use to do everything is unsustainable and we are left feeling depleted, scattered.
Then, I consciously switched to vertical mode. I hung back and let my kids tell me what they knew about any given subject, giving answers only when questions were asked. I gave them autonomy to dress, bathe, get food for themselves (at age 6 and 10 they were both developmentally capable, but I had stayed in the habit from when they were toddlers). I stopped trying “to do”, and let others do for me. Most remarkably, I had more time and space for myself: to write, do yoga, daydream (if I dared) and any other things that fed my soul.
In vertical mode we are aligned with our intentions and rooted in the motivations that drive all we do. Vertically, we are constantly being replenished and re-energized simply by not overdoing, but by being receptive, letting things come to us as opposed to always trying to make things happen. We are present and centered, in the vertical we are balanced.
In the vertical state one can revisit and reflect: what is my overall intention (in raising my family/or teaching students/or being a member of this human race)? Who do I want to be and how do I want to feel?
When you make time to name it, you can see it, and when you see it, you can be it. The ingenious thing is that when others see it, they can be it, too. In taking care of yourself, you have full access to your coping mechanisms, you’re not running on fumes or giving from an empty place. You become a model for those around you on how to do the same.
I left feeling my whole mind, body, and spirit nourished. I’m excited about sharing this transformative information with my students, other teachers, and especially families. Leah really walks the talk and is such an inspiration to me. I wish every parent and educator could take her course!
In exploring how to have family fun playing with being vertical, I adapted old and new material into what I call: Family Freeze Dance. Turn on your favorite tunes, just before dinner or after. Take turns pausing the song, and instead of freeze-ing (which often makes bodies stiff and breathing tight) try dropping into Mountain Pose (standing tall, rooted into the earth yet receptive & soft around the eyes and shoulders). Mountain is such a great pose to practice experiencing being in the vertical with strength AND ease. At the end of the game, use a Humming Breath to calm bodies and bring energy down for the next activity: reading time, dinner time, bed time. Take in 3 more breaths here, while enjoying the view from standing strong and easeful in who you are.
April Cantor has been teaching yoga fulltime since 1999; first to adults in studios and corporate centers, and now currently with children. Her former life as a theater arts educator with Stages of Learning in NYC public schools set her on course to working with children in ways that get them out of their desks and feeling at home in their bodies. She founded SoulShine Life Yoga for Kids and Families to bring yoga programs into Brooklyn & NY preschools, and to help families integrate yoga into their busy lives. April finds much inspiration from her two boys, and occasionally facilitates Partner Yoga workshops with her husband, dance educator/choreographer, Barry Blumenfeld.
Rosalie has worked with young children, youth, families, and teachers in her community in southern California for the last 20 years. Her mission is to empower them to feel peaceful and to advocate for peace.
I focus on sharing tools that support their self-care and regulation, centering and focusing, critical thinking, active listening, and problem-solving. In my classes and community service projects in Irvine Regional Park, we explore different arts & media incorporating stories through history, cooperative games, guided imagery, meditation, drama, dance, music, and creative movement. (www.OCPeacecamp.com)
Her journey working with children has guided her to establish her own way of self-regulating. Learning from the many mindfulness classes and other in-depth mind-body trainings she’s experienced, she has integrated the tools that work for her in her own daily practice, and has many options to offer not only the children she teaches, but also the parents, teachers, and administrations she serves through parent training and professional development.
Daily, I seek to walk my talk. I am continually mindful of where I am as a wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, trainer, dancer, and mentor and reflect regularly on how I am impacting others. Am I showing up as I intend… as my best self? I also have a very strong spiritual foundation. I meditate on things that are positive. I know not to overwhelm myself with activities which will throw me out of balance. I give myself time to slow down my breathing, use some adventure skills, and be quiet. I know it’s what I need to have a grateful heart and enjoy the blessings of playing every day. And I am grateful for you Leah, and Move with Me Yoga Adventures, for giving me the opportunity to continue to grow in this field.
Rosalie is planning to extend her use and sale of the curriculum resources to the many stressed families that she sees. She’s understands first-hand how effective the adventure skills, activities, and stories can give families a healthy way to play and self-care together. She loves supporting parents, who, as much as their kids, need tools for managing and thriving, not just surviving, in their fast paced and sometimes chaotic lives. Here’s a perfect and powerful example:
A 4 year old was having a tantrum in front of her mom about going home. I could hear the child’s upset and see the mom, frazzled, at a total loss as to what to do, and getting angry. I stepped in before it escalated into a power struggle, and asked the child what she had learned to do to help herself when feeling upset and angry. She looked at me, like a lightbulb had switched on, and replied: “I put my one hand to my heart and the other on my belly. I breathe slowly in and out.” As she did this, she started to calm. I told her she could do it for as long as she wanted. She continued. Mom looked at me amazed. I smiled. After a few more moments, the child stopped, picked up her stuff, and walked out quietly with her Mom.
Other anecdotes to share with M & M Teacher-Trainers:
I use the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum with my preschool-2nd grade students during PE time and after school program. We use the footprints/handprints to map out the 3 States of Mind of the Triune Brain. Then we have fun doing the March of the Penguins. Then, I hear children apply what they’ve learned: “You’re thinking from your brainstem …use your frontal brain.” I love when I see that they truly internalize the tools. That’s empowerment.
I also use the laminated Adventure Skill Cards regularly. I have children partner up and the move from one card to another – practicing the mind-body activity, reflecting on how it makes them feel, and naming at least one time in their lives they will use it.
During the Celebration of Young Child Week, I am doing a lot of movement to music using the Literacy in Motion CD. My classes love Where the Wild Things Are. These and all the MwMYA movement & mindfulness resources bring more fun and joy, as well as reflection and kindness, to the learning process.
Become a Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum Teacher!
“Your training always took us back to self-regulation and coherence in ourselves, which enabled me to feel both personally inspired and professionally confident to share the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum program with children!"-Erin McFarland, Teacher, CA