The Proprioceptive System

Sep 21, 2021

Take a second and squeeze something in your hand. Feel that sensation? Now, push against the wall. Feel that? What you are sensing is your proprioceptive system at work.  

What is proprioception?  It’s the internal sense that tells us what our body is doing and where our body is in space. The proprioceptive system receives sensory input through receptors in our joints, muscles, and tendons. Proprioceptive input can also tell us the amount of force or pressure we use to complete a task successfully. Your proprioceptive system is activated anytime your joints are compressed together or stretched apart such as when you push or pull on objects, jump up and down, or hang from the monkey bar.   

So, what happens when your body does not process proprioceptive input accurately?

Some children are under-responsive to proprioceptive input, in other words the brain is not processing the input correctly and not registering the intensity of the input. This can lead to poor coordination, clumsiness, and a lack of body awareness. These are the kids who are constantly running into furniture or people, tripping over their own feet, and leaning or hanging on anything in their environment (including you).  

Other children may crave proprioceptive input and are constantly seeking opportunities that provide this. They may be constantly moving, climbing on everything, jumping off furniture, chewing on their clothes, and love rough and tumble play. These children require a higher intensity of proprioceptive input to satisfy their sensory needs.  

Part of the job of our occupational therapists is to help evaluate a child’s sensory needs and offer them activities that help them better engage with their surroundings. Because proprioceptive input can have a calming effect and help us organize or “modulate” the sensory input from our environment, it is a tool commonly used by occupational therapists. We commonly call this “heavy work.” Heavy work provides proprioceptive input to the body by actively using our muscles, joints, and tendons.  Heavy work is easy to incorporate into your or your child’s daily routine because we frequently activate our proprioceptive system through play, exercise, and other daily activities. Here is a short list of “heavy work” activities that occupational therapists frequently recommend or use in therapy to help a child organize their sensory system:  

  • Animal walks (bear walks, crab walks, frog jumps, or snake crawls (aka “army crawl)  
  • Carrying or pushing heavy objects (a full laundry basket, groceries, or moving furniture)  
  • Wheelbarrow walks  
  • Tearing paper, cardboard boxes, or cereal boxes  
  • Opening and holding heavy doors for others 
  • Squeezing a stress ball or playing with slime, putty, or Play-Doh 
  • Help in the kitchen: Stir thick batter, knead and roll pizza dough, or use a rolling pin 
  • Push a shopping cart, carry a shopping basket, or pull a wagon 
  • Stack chairs at school or help take chairs off tables at beginning and end of the day 
  • Help move mats or furniture before/after naptime or other activities  
  • Swimming, yoga poses, wall or floor push-ups, running, and climbing  

As always, if you have questions, contact your pediatrician or feel free to call the Center. We are here to help.