Helping a Child’s Body Relate to Space – Part 1

Our body’s five senses are typically well-known, but the sixth sense is not always part of our general knowledge.   But it can be easy to understand… all we need is a medium sized balloon and some water to help us see it in action.

Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching are all ways our bodies use to help us learn about the world.   But without visual cues, it is difficult to know how our bodies relate to the space around us, ie spatial awareness.

A helium balloon KNOWS where UP is !

Our spatial awareness is developed through the use of our sense of Proprioception, described as the :

  • “awareness of posture, movement,
  • and changes in equilibrium
  • and the knowledge of position, weight, and resistance of objects
  • as they relate to the body”.

(Gale Encylopedia of Medicine, 2008)

It is essential for any action requiring eye-hand coordination, and that is a lot of actions !

It is also essential for balance, and especially for babies to recognize where UP is.  I know that seems like it would be innate knowledge, but it is not, we must develop those neural connections as early as possible in childhood, and continue to develop our spatial awareness and “BALANCE” throughout our lifetime.

  • First our body has to know how it is positioned in relationship to the earth and the space in which we exist.
  • Then we learn how our body exists in relation to objects around our environment.

In Kindermusik classes, we enjoy a great variety of activities that move our bodies in ways that help children learn all of these skills.

  • In this article, I will be focusing mostly on the first part, the body’s recognition of where it is in space.
  • The next step, developing spatial relationships, will be discussed in an upcoming article.

Our sense of hearing is developed through our ears, seeing through our eyes… etc., but what about our proprioceptive sense?  Ahh, we don’t typically know because we can’t SEE it !!!

Our sense that helps us recognize where our body is in it’s immediate space develops in our inner ear, a uniquely spiral shell shaped area called the Cochlea.  The walls of the cochlea are lined with nerve endings, and it is partially filled with a liquid.  Just like in a glass of water that is being tipped side to side, the liquid stays level with the ground.  As the liquid moves around, it stimulates the nerve endings to let the brain begin to understand how the body is moving through space.  This is known as our Vestibular system, and it  is truly our center of balance.


OK, WOW that’s a lot of details, Ms. Debbie, what does that mean to me as a PARENT?  How can I help my child develop this sense of proprioception – when I cannot see or get to the area of learning???

For that, I will quote one of my favorite authors, Carla Hannaford, from her book “Smart Moves”.  (Highly recommended reading!)

“MOVE the body to LEARN, so the body can LEARN to MOVE.”

That same advice can be used with newborns, all the way up to elderly folks.   Movement is not just important for our muscles and the inner workings of our organs, it is critical for our brain development.




and let it teach you what to do.

Fill a medium sized balloon halfway with water (use food coloring and perhaps some glitter to make it easier to see the movement), the fill it up with air, and knot it.

Draw a face on one side and an ear on each side.  There is a cochlea on each side of the head, so each person has TWO working for them!

Lay the balloon snugly face up on a pillow.  Typically, there are two “normal” zones that babies get used to and try to return to that position, laying on it’s back, and upright.  That is the first step in Vestibular development recognizing where normal is, and the associated feelings of comfort and safety when in the normal position.

Slowly turn the face sideways then back up, watching the water maintain it’s balance.  Whenever and wherever the water moves, it is sending signals that teach the brain.  A balloon can’t learn where UP is, but the brain can.

Hold the balloon around both ears, and slowly ROCK side to side or back and forth.  Just like in the balloon, this type of movement moves the liquid in the inner ear out of it’s “normal UP zone”, then back into it, repeatedly, giving the sensation of movement and the constant reassuring return to “normal”.   This repeated pattern, in combination with the other senses – the feel of loving arms, the familiar smell of a loving adult, the soothing sound of a lullaby – these all combine to bring a sense of safety and calm that allows them to relax.  Rocking is important for all ages, as it also calms the mother, and soothes the nerves of the elderly.  If you see a child rocking themselves, just know that their body is craving that type of sensory input.

Turn the balloon upside down.  Those nerves at the top of the cochlea don’t often get that much contact with the liquid, and it sends signals to the brain that something unusual is happening.  If unfamiliar, or sudden, it may scare a child, but if explored in safe fun ways, it becomes a new way to learn about the world through movement.   Regardless, the body does not want to be left in that position for too long and will send strong signals to bring it upright again.

Hold the balloon and jump up and down.  The liquid briefly hits the top of the balloon, then settles back down.  Again, the nerves at the top of the cochlea are surprised, and so is the child.  At first it may be scary, but as it continues to return to normal, the action is more like “tickling” the nerves at the top, and can make a child laugh, and want to do it again and again.  Hopping, jumping, skipping, and even bungee jumping all fall into this addictive movement (for some).

Under water truly is a whole new world.

Place the balloon in a pool or tub filled with water and move the head around under the water. (NOTE: DO NOT do this with your child.)  Be aware that the pressure of the water, esp. as the balloon goes deeper, will strongly effect the movement of the water and the sensations sent to the brain  will be interpreted quite differently.  It is extremely difficult for the brain to know where UP is under water unless given training.  That is one reason it is so dangerous to have babies unsupervised around water.  They don’t know how to adjust their body to breathe.  Luckily there are many teachers in Florida that know how to train a baby under water.

While floating the balloon on top of the water, spin it around.  As it starts to go around, the liquid doesn’t move with the head at the same speed, it tries to maintain it’s place in space, but does start to move in the same direction.  If the balloon is abruptly stopped, the water will continue to go around in that direction for a short time before it settles back down.  If it goes around long enough, the liquid will catch up to the same speed, but again, when the head stops, the liquid continues to move at the same speed, which is why the head feels dizzy until it calms down and returns to “normal”.    At some stages, the brain craves this stimulation.  At other stages, it just makes us nauseous.


Hopefully, this balloon experiment allows you to “SEE” how the Vestibular system works as the head moves around, and how the space around the head can effect it.  The Vestibular system is key to building a strong Proprioceptive sense.

Although the Vestibular system works the same for most everyone, every child has a different level of Vestibular Needs.   In other words, some children are more comfortable with less movement in the inner ear, while others are bound and determined to get that liquid sloshing around all over the place, all the time.  I’m sure you will agree, it can be the same with adults.

But that is the subject of another article, and would be too much to add here.  Please see:

Vestibular Needs are Different for Each Child

So… after playing with a partially filled water balloon, what new things are you going to try with your child to help their body relate to space?




  1. Nicole /

    So interesting! I appreciate all the research and learning that goes on behind the scenes of kindermusik! Just another reason why I love taking my kids to Ms. Debbie :)

  2. The Dynamic equilibrium detects the linear or straight acceleration are detected by the organs called the utricle and saccule. They work similar to the way it is sensed with the first. The hair cells of the Otolithic organs are coated with a jelly-like liquid, but also have tiny calcium stones called Otoconia. When your body turns any direction other then straight, the tiny balls move over the hairs, causing them to bend. When you get dizzy by being spun around and then are stopped, you get the feeling that you are still spinning, that’s because the inertia of fluid is still moving in your ear. The equilibrium tells your cerebellum that you are spinning.

  3. Vestibular – Pertaining to the vestibular system in the middle ear and the brain which senses movements of the head. Disorders of the vestibular system can lead to dizziness, poor regulation of postural muscle tone and inability to detect quick movements of the head.

  4. When air is used, there is greater variability than water. When water is not used directly, as in the balloon test, heat or cold is not conducted as efficiently to the ear.

  5. THE VESTIBULAR SYSTEM, which provides your sense of balance, directly affects your movement patterns and your ability to develop a strong core. It may be the most important sensory system you have, shaping everything about you: your sense of self, your reality, your balance, your posture, your ability to learn, your experiences, everything. You can function without other sensory systems and lead a somewhat “normal” life. For instance, a blind man can learn to be independent and get around almost as well as people who have sight. But a person who’s vestibular system is out of whack may not be able to have a “normal” life. Just ask anyone who has ever had vertigo and they will tell you just how important a healthy vestibular system is for feeling “normal” and healthy.

  6. • There are over 500 known syndromes or causes that affect the audio-vestibular system.

  7. The vestibular system, which contributes to balance in most mammals and to the sense of spatial orientation , is the sensory system that provides the leading contribution about movement and sense of balance . Together with the cochlea , a part of the auditory system , it constitutes the labyrinth of the inner ear in most mammals, situated in the vestibulum in the inner ear (Figure 1). As movements consist of rotations and translations, the vestibular system comprises two components: the semicircular canal system, which indicate rotational movements; and the otoliths , which indicate linear accelerations. The vestibular system sends signals primarily to the neural structures that control eye movements, and to the muscles that keep a creature upright. The projections to the former provide the anatomical basis of the vestibulo-ocular reflex , which is required for clear vision; and the projections to the muscles that control posture are necessary to keep a creature upright.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>