Everyday Sensory: Making Sense of Proprioception

by FS&TS

By Jennafer Young, MS, OTR/L

I’ll be the first to admit that we occupational therapists like to throw around a lot of “sensory jargon.” You may nod and smile and think it all makes sense while we chatter about your child’s vestibular system, oral-seeking behaviors, proprioceptive calming strategies, and sensory diet. But when you try to explain your child’s needs and strategies to teachers, PCAs, or other family members, you realize it’s not quite as clear as you thought in the clinic. Let’s hit pause and try to break down one of these terms into real language - language you can feel comfortable using to teach grandparents or daycare providers how to best support your child. Today we’ll start with the longest word: proprioception.

What is proprioception?

“Proprioception” is just another one of your senses. Usually we talk about 5 senses - sight, taste, touch, sound, and smell. Well in the OT world, there are 7 senses, and proprioception is number 6. (Vestibular sense is number 7, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In a nutshell, the sense of proprioception is the sense of where your body is. Close your eyes and think about your body - do you still know where your left arm is, even though you can’t see it? Can you reach up and touch your ear with your eyes closed? That’s because of your sense of proprioception. This awareness of your body is picked up by receptors located in your muscles and joints. Whenever you move (and amazingly, even when you stand still!), these receptors send messages to the brain to let you know where each part of your body is positioned and how it is moving.

Why does proprioception matter?

By giving you a sense of body awareness, proprioception prepares you to move in a smooth and coordinated fashion. After all, if you’re not sure where your body is, it would sure be tough to coordinate your arms, legs, and trunk to complete movements like running, jumping rope, or climbing on the jungle gym! Having a good sense of proprioception also helps with safety awareness because you know where you are in relation to your surroundings. This helps keep you from bumping into people and objects around you.

Why does my child “seek proprioception”?

In regard to the other senses, we might say someone has “keen eyesight” or is “not very sensitive to smells.” Similarly, some kids are highly aware of their bodies (high proprioceptive sense), and some have low awareness (low proprioceptive sense). For those with low awareness, it takes a more powerful proprioceptive input for them to feel it. This more intense input could seem painful to us, but it is “just right” for the child with a lower sensitivity to proprioception. Does your child love to jump, roll, crash, or purposefully fall? He or she is probably trying to naturally get the proprioceptive input needed to sense the position of his/her body.

What activities provide proprioceptive input?

Activities that require your the muscles to work hard or add pressure to the joints are rich proprioceptive activities. By loading your joints or muscles with weight (“heavy work”), you can cause the receptors there to send lots of strong messages to the brain about where your body is!

Here are some activities that provide a lot of proprioceptive input:

  • -Animal walks (bear walk, crab walk, wheelbarrow walk, etc.)

  • -Tug-of-war

  • -Crawling through a mountain of heavy pillows/blankets

  • -Pulling a sled loaded with snow or sand or another child

  • -Wearing ankle weights or wrist weights while playing

  • -Monkey bars or climbing on the jungle gym

  • -Pushing the grocery cart

  • -Swimming

  • -Making snow angels

  • -Kneading or stirring thick foods

  • -Laying on the belly while propped up on elbows or hands (e.g. while watching TV, coloring, etc.)