The Sense of Balance
”Forget the Baby Einstein videos and academic preschools.
Body mastery must come first in order for the brain to be most receptive for all other learning.”
Balance is the last of the four foundational senses of which I have written in the past four issues:
- The Sense of Touch
- The Sense of Life
- The Sense of Self Movement ~Part I
- The Sense of Self Movement ~ Part II
Balance is extremely important not only on a physical level but also on an emotional level. Recall that the foundational senses give us a foundation for life; therefore, it behooves us to make sure children have as many opportunities as possible in gaining mastery over their physical bodies. With secure bodily integration, the right environment is created for emotional and cognitive learning. Forget the Baby Einstein videos and academic preschools. Body mastery must come first in order for the brain to be most receptive for all other learning.
Children innately work on the sense of balance all the time. If near a curb, beam or a log, most children cannot resist the urge to walk across the narrow surface. This serves to strengthen a sense we will have to use our whole lives. Notice that when people age and physical activity declines, the sense of balance weakens. This need not be the case; walking, yoga, dance, and other activities can keep balance strong into one’s senior years.
If balance is not strong, children may walk awkwardly and have trouble running and skipping. It is not uncommon for children to fall out of their chairs at school or at the dining table, because they do not fully know where their body is in space and their balance is weak.
The sense of balance is also called the vestibular sense. The central mechanism of balance is located in our inner ear, where the vestibular apparatus consists of two small sacs plus three semicircular canals, at right angles to each other and each in a different plane of space. Fluid in each canal sends feedback to the brain about orientation in space: left/right, front/back and up/down. When these sensory receptors are not functioning well, misleading information goes to the brain. However, when the receptors are working properly, the body makes adjustments easily because the information going to the brain is matched on each side of the head. Imagine if you are sitting in a chair and someone comes behind you and tips it back or to the side. Your sense of balance, if strong, helps you to make a quick adjustment to stay in the chair.
Vision and proprioception also help us to maintain balance. We know how hard it is to stand on one foot if our eyes are closed. That’s because sensory receptors in our eyes send messages to our brain that help us to maintain balance. Proprioception, discussed in the sense of movement articles, is knowing where our body is in space. We learn this through feedback from our muscles and joints. Looking at a sideways view of an upright human, you will notice the joints that line up with the vestibular system in the ear: jaws, shoulders, elbows, wrists, pelvis, knees, ankles. All of these joints and the nearby muscles, especially the neck muscles and the ankles, give feedback to the brain, to help us balance whether we are on a flat surface, a hill, or a log.
Here’s a wonderful example of the drive to work on balance. While visiting a Kindergarten at a Waldorf school, I observed a five year old girl set up an elaborate elevated walkway. Molly, as I’ll call her, and some children took a few low chairs and set them near each other, then set a six foot plank (5 “wide) across two chairs spaced apart, and a few shorter planks on other chairs and large wooden blocks. The whole walkway consisted of low chairs and planks: it was a three sided square that was two feet off the ground, but at the end of the long section, there was a slide where the children could slide down on their knees and meet the floor. Molly carried a large doll in one arm and began to walk across the structure. Other girls and boys followed, some being cautious and some just breezing along. Molly took perhaps a dozen trips around. A couple times she fell (once a board collapsed) but she got up with doll intact, fixed the boards as though nothing had happened and resumed her walk. On the other hand, a new girl in the classroom was very busy in the house corner, setting the table and making soup. When she finally noticed that the all the other children were now at the walkway, she was prompted by her inner voice to try it. She was extremely hesitant; across the long plank she walked sideways, the safest way, even with friendly encouragement from another child. One trip was enough, and back she went to the security of the house corner. A week later, the teacher told me that the newcomer was getting bolder in her forays into challenging movement tasks. Thank goodness this type of classroom so beautifully provided these children the opportunities to improve their foundation skills.
Connie Helms works in private practice as an Extra Lesson teacher in Vermont with children, adolescents and adults at Balance in Childhood. She is a consultant to Waldorf schools in the U.S., mentors Waldorf remedial teachers and serves on the board of the Association for a Healing Education. Connie is the mother of three young adult children who attended Waldorf schools from nursery through grade eight. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 802-660-0555.