Discover over 45 vestibular activities that can calm, soothe, and improve attention in your child. Plus, get strategies for kids that seek or avoid vestibular input.
Vestibular input is incredibly powerful and can have amazing or surprising effects. Vestibular processing is nearly always at work in everything we do, arguably more than any other sensory system. Vestibular activities, when used correctly, have the ability to calm and soothe a child, as well as improve many aspects of development like coordination, handwriting, attention, and even reading!
Unfortunately, vestibular processing is often not understood, and when we don’t understand it, we can’t use it to help our kids! Some of our kids seek vestibular input, like my son. He loves to climb, swing high, and log roll down the hill in the back yard. But, he doesn’t stop there, he will often get creative, and when he does, I’ll find him hanging upside down somewhere or backing himself up against a wall and climbing his feet up it with his head down so that he’s inverted!
But, some kids, and even babies, can’t stand vestibular input and avoid it like the plague, refusing to sit on a swing or maybe even disliking walking down the stairs. And still, other children just aren’t processing vestibular input very well. In either of these cases, the affects of that poor vestibular processing can have quite a ripple effect throughout their whole life. That’s where problems with visual motor skills, body awareness, toe walking, and even W-Sitting may come in! All of those challenges can make it difficult for our kids to learn and focus.
My point is that vestibular processing is a big deal!
While the vestibular system is a HUGE topic, I want to simplify it and give you just what you need to know so that you can have some real strategies for helping your sensory kiddo! You’ll learn what vestibular input is, signs for avoiding or seeking vestibular input, amazing vestibular activities (and important safety precautions when using them), and how to help your child if they don’t like it.
What is Vestibular Input?
Vestibular input is received in the brain every single time we move our head because the receptors for this sensory system are located deep within our inner ear. The vestibular system is made up of canals that are lined with tiny little hairs and these canals also have some fluid in them. When we move, the fluid swishes around in the canals and touches the hairs. The brain gets the message about what hairs the fluid has touched and we know how and where to move! See a visual here.
That means that we get vestibular input, albeit mildly, when we turn our head or walk across the room. The greater the movement, the more vestibular input we receive because that fluid is swishing around on the receptors more! This is why our vestibular seeking kids are always trying to up the ante. They want bigger, more powerful vestibular input and they’ll get it when they move fast, climb high, hand upside down, swing, or spin.
Our vestibular system is so very important because it links to our vision, auditory and proprioceptive systems, and more. Because of that connection, vestibular processing affects eye-hand coordination (visual motor skills) and how we move our bodies (body awareness). If the vestibular system is under-developed or there are processing problems, you might see surprising difficulties in your child:
- Difficulty sitting still (very wiggly)
- Poor handwriting
- Poor core strength (w-sitting, hard-time sitting with good posture)
- Poor balance
- Poor motor planning (figuring out how to move the body in a new way like riding a bike for the first time)
- Difficulty problem solving
- Poor organizational skills
- Poor attention
The good news is that with vestibular activities these challenges can be improved upon greatly! Read more about underdeveloped vestibular processing here.
Signs for Seeking Vestibular Input
Seeking vestibular input isn’t necessarily a bad thing, some kids simply like it and enjoy the sensation. However, if your child is constantly, almost obsessively looking for ways to get vestibular input, it can start to interfere with life. This fixation on movement happens because their brain is underprocessing the vestibular input. Basically, that means that the signal isn’t getting through that they’ve gotten vestibular input, so they keep trying to get it. That’s where vestibular activities come in, because they can help the brain start to process the input it’s getting better! For now, let’s talk about what signs you’ll see if you child is seeking vestibular input:
- Climbs dangerously high, can’t seem to get high enough
- Spins frequently (while standing, on swings, in swivel chairs)
- Seeks out swinging
- Never seems to get dizzy
- Always moving, running
Kids that seek vestibular input also often seek proprioceptive input. These two senses are the powerhouses of the whole sensory system, and they work closely together. Head to sensory seeking activities and proprioceptive activities to learn more.
Signs of Avoiding Vestibular Input
Avoiding, or overprocessing, vestibular input is a whole other can of worms. Instead of the signal not getting through in the brain, for kids that are sensitive to movement, the brain is getting too many signals! It’s on overdrive and even the little movements can seem much bigger. In more extreme cases, when kids are incredibly fearful of any type of movement, it’s called gravitational insecurity because they’re literally afraid to leave the ground in any capacity.
It’s a frightening feeling for kids when they get picked up or are moved unexpectedly. They may feel dizzy, as if they are falling, or lose their balance. Nobody likes that and that’s why they work hard to avoid to experiencing it. Some common signs for avoiding vestibular input are:
- Refuses to ride swings
- Won’t climb playground equipment
- Scared of movement
- Doesn’t like rough-housing
- Overwhelmed or cautious walking down stairs
It’s very important that we respect a child’s wishes to not participate in these activities, but helping them learn to tolerate vestibular input is equally as important. The vestibular activities on this list will be helpful, but pay attention to the special instructions and strategies at the end!
Essential Vestibular Activities
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Vestibular activities can be extremely calming and soothing, often times perfect to help get kids ready for bed or winding down after school. They can give the body a chance to re-charge and relax. At the same time, other vestibular activities may be very stimulating and arousing. This may be good thing if your child is lethargic or difficult to get energized. As always, how your child responds to these activities will be unique, and to make them successful you’ll want to watch for that response.
Pulling together what activities are helpful is exactly what a sensory diet is all about. If that’s a new term to you, you can read all about what a sensory diet is. Or, if you’re familiar, make sure you print out the sensory diet template to make organizing sensory activities even easier!
Below is over 30 vestibular activities, those that tend to be more calming are listed in the beginning. My favorite and most powerful vestibular activities are highlighted in bold:
Sitting in a rocking chair
Rocking on a yoga ball (try side to side too)
Rocking in a hammock
Swaying or slowly dancing to music
Yoga (especially inversion poses)
Sitting on a gliding chair or couch
Riding a rocking horse
Hanging upside down (from playground equipment or over a couch/bed)
Rocking back and forth to Row, Row, Row, Your Boat with a Partner
Riding a swing (this is a platform style that can be very helpful in improving vestibular processing, read more in the next section)
Swinging on a porch swing
Swinging in a blanket swing (have child lay in blanket and have two adults each hold an end and lift to swing back and forth)
Spinning in large circles on a tire swing (***Spinning is extremely powerful vestibular input, make sure you read the caution warning below***)
Spinning on a swivel chair (allow child to do themselves)
Riding a scooter board (one of my favorite activities because it’s portable, easy to store, and is really effective. Try while sitting and laying on belly)
Pull in a wagon, cart, or while on a scooter board
Walking across a balance beam
Playing leap frog
Moving across monkey bars
Riding a see-saw
Standing upside down with feet up against wall
Walking on a suspended bridge
Sliding down slides
Bouncing on a large ball (we have this one)
Log rolling (across the floor or down a hill)
Jumping (try on a couch, bed, bouncy house, or trampoline for more intense input)
Riding a bike/scooter
Riding rollerblades/roller skates
Riding push toys/bikes/scooters down a hill
Singing and hand motions for “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”
Using a sit and spin
Sitting in a cone spinner or a bilibo (both toys that encourage vestibular input)
Spinning (***See Below***)
Obstacle course that require jumping, crawling, rolling, etc.
Use CAUTION with Spinning
Many vestibular input seekers LOVE spinning, they can’t seem to get enough it. So it only seems natural to want to give it to them, right? Well, its not that simple. Spinning is the most intense sensory experience and after a short amount of time it causes the vestibular system to literally shut off. Or, as a response to not being able to handle the input, the brain goes into protective mode and your child will get sick. And by sick I mean nauseous and even throwing up.
The effects of spinning can last up to 6-8 hours later, and if it was too much input those effects might not be what you had in mind. It could be a meltdown because their sensory system is just off!
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen so many times. As an OT, I have this healthy fear of spinning and am very cautious whenever I use it with kids, even kids that can’t seem to get enough. Spinning can seem really helpful, but its best to go about it really methodically. Angie Voss, occupational therapist, explains this perfectly on her blog, A Sensory Life. If you have a spinner, I highly recommend you read this!
Focus on teaching your child to spin for 10 seconds in one direction and then to stop and spin 10 seconds in the other direction. That’s it. This is even more powerful and beneficial if you can do this on a platform swing while your child lays on their belly. I love this platform swing because it’s by far one of the most affordable, therapy grade versions can be very pricey!
Lastly, avoid spinning your child, unless you’re following the above recommendation using a platform swing. Allow your kiddo to spin themselves and if they’re still fixated on spinning more redirect them to another vestibular activity. You have lots of inspiration above!
How to Help Kids Tolerate Vestibular Input and Activities
As you read above, its important to help kids that avoid vestibular input to tolerate and eventually accept it through vestibular activities that will help them process it better. However, we never want to force a child to participate in a sensory activity, especially vestibular. Here are some suggestions for helping your child accept vestibular activities:
- Start with movements that keep a child’s feet securely on the ground. Think about yoga poses, hand motions to “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” as great starting points for them to get their head inverted.
- Take small steps, allowing them to get comfortable with the activity slowly over time. For instance, you may start with just pushing a swing, then leaning against it, then sitting with one leg touching the ground, etc. You can break down many of the vestibular activities above in similar ways. It may take weeks or months before your child readily participates.
- When using equipment that they are unsure of like a trampoline, large ball, or scooter board, keep a very firm hand or two on their shoulders, waist, or arm. This deep pressure that you give them will be very grounding and help them feel more secure.
- Let your child know that you are there to help them, and they can let you know if they are feeling scared or dizzy.
Need Help with Vestibular Activities
It can be hard to figure out what activities to use when with your child if you know or suspect they have sensory needs! If you’d like to know exactly how to pick the most beneficial activities, get a seat in the free workshop: How to Create a No-Stress Sensory Diet in 4 Simple Steps.
You won’t want to miss this!
If you’re wondering, if your child needs more help from an OT, then you’ll want to check out what sensory integration therapy is all about.
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.