All about BODY AWARENESS!
Is your child constantly bumping into other kids, falling out chairs, or tripping over stuff?
Here’s What You Need to Know About Body Awareness and Sensory Processing
Your child’s teacher reports that your kid falls out of their chair and pushes other kids in line. Which is not only disruptive but also doesn’t help your kid in the friend department.
And maybe you’ve noticed some problems yourself. Sometimes your child looks surprised as they bump their way through (and into) doorways or playground equipment. Not to mention they play WAAAY too rough with their siblings.
It’s as if your kid doesn't totally connect to what their own body is doing and where their body is in space.
And, you might be correct. They might not know what their body is doing. It sounds like you’re observing some difficulties with body awareness.
Problems with body awareness can look like clumsiness or even be labeled as “disruptive” behaviors. And yes, these concerns are valid reasons to seek out an occupational therapy evaluation from somewhere like Bearfoot OT. Beyond broken items at home or minor bruises, body awareness plays an important role in academics and social relationships. Let’s take a closer look at what body awareness means.
Understanding What Body Awareness Is
Think of body awareness as the brain's map of where the body is in space – and what it is doing.
This includes your sense of body position, interpreting sensory signals, and understanding body position in relation to other people or objects¹.
Without much conscious effort, your brain constantly keeps track of what your body is doing and how much space it needs for different positions. For instance, your sense of body awareness is how you’re able to reach for something you’re not looking at, quickly calculate how to fit your body into a tight spot during hide-and-seek, or stay balanced on a seesaw.
Body awareness is created by the information from the sensory system, including vision, touch, vestibular sense, and proprioception.
Here’s how your brain might translate sensory information into body awareness:
Vision: I see the environment and understand how to move my body in relation to what I see. I see how others move their bodies, and that helps me understand how to move my body.
Touch: I understand where my body is based on what I feel. What I feel helps me understand how much force to use.
Vestibular: As I move in space, I understand where my body is. This is how I balance and navigate the space around me.
Proprioception: Pressure and resistance on my body and joints tell me where my body is in space, where each body part is, and what my body is doing.
All of this information is then organized by the brain to create a sense of where the body is in space and in relation to other things.
What Body Awareness Looks Like in Kids
Body awareness is a developmental skill that emerges as kids develop and get feedback from using their bodies in play¹.
Interestingly, educators and parents are noting kids are falling out of chairs in school or struggling with coordination activities more frequently. This is attributed to less time spent in play activities that traditionally encourage kids to hone their physical skills, like body awareness¹.
Body awareness issues in kids show up in different ways, like bumping into people or objects, being in the personal space of others, or falling out of their seats at school. All because the body map in the brain isn’t fully calibrated.
To imagine what this would be like, pretend you had a cardboard ring around your waist. Then imagine walking through a crowded store. You’d be bumping into people and items on the shelf without really knowing it or meaning to!
But body awareness isn’t just about the position in space. It also includes understanding and calculating the amount of force the body creates. With incorrect judgments of force, you’ll see a kid with poor body awareness play too rough, push too hard when playing tag, or squeeze objects too hard (or too soft).
This creates a strange dilemma for parents.
Hearing your child is disruptive or hurting others may give you feelings of guilt and confusion. After all, you know your child doesn’t mean to be too rough or get in other people’s space.
The answer isn’t to tell them to play more gently or to pay attention to where they are going. The answer is to guide them to better body awareness.
Just like any developmental skill, kids develop body awareness at different rates. Some kids simply require some extra practice or support for the skill to emerge. This is especially true for encouraging the development of body awareness for kids with ADHD, dyspraxia, and autism¹.
Remember, body awareness is a skill that improves with practice as kids use their bodies in physical play.
Here are some insights on how to help your child do this.
Building Body Awareness Through Proprioception and Heavy Work
Body awareness will improve as brain connections to the body are strengthened. From a simplified perspective, your child needs to get their brain to pay more attention to what the body is doing.
To do this, let’s look at attention, proprioception, and heavy work as ways to improve body awareness.
Shift Attention to What the Body Is Doing
Want to build body awareness? Pick fun movement tasks that are new to the brain and body. This switches the brain and body out of autopilot to figure out the challenge⁴.
In fact, trial and error with extra time to interpret feedback from the body and the environment is a key factor in helping the brain to build self and body awareness¹.
In outdoor occupational therapy, every experience is novel. Kids get to use all their senses and connect the brain to the body to climb, move, and play.
That could be taking extra time to look before reaching for a tree branch or figuring out how to position the body correctly to fit through a tight crawling space.
We see this happening all the time as kids in outdoor OT walk across logs or climb through the octopus root structure in The Presidio. No moving on autopilot. Kids are doing all sorts of new movements. Meanwhile, their brains are being challenged to pay close attention to what their bodies are doing to successfully navigate new tasks and spaces.
Understanding Proprioception and Heavy Work
Proprioception is the body’s ability to detect position, pressure, and resistance through special sensors in the joints. These sensors are called proprioceptors, and they have a direct and powerful effect on self-regulation and body awareness⁶.
In fact, providing activities focused on proprioception has been shown to improve body representation and the ability to move the body in relation to other people and objects². A proprioception program has also been shown to reduce aggressive behaviors in the classroom³.
A key contributor to proprioception is heavy work.
Heavy work is when resistance is added to the body to increase proprioception. In kids, heavy work like strength training was shown to improve body awareness and coordination⁵.
Heavy work is not just about lifting heavy objects. It can also simply be the weight of the body pushing through the joints or the feel of a material like water, sand, or fabric pushing against the body.
These activities light up the proprioceptors to give the brain more data about where the body is and what it is doing.
Examples of Activities for Proprioception:
Lifting objects that feel heavy
Pushing a full laundry basket
Receiving a firm hug
Hanging by the arms from the monkey bars
At Bearfoot OT, we have endless options for proprioception and heavy work during our outdoor OT sessions.
We actually couldn’t do a session without some form of proprioception. That’s because hiking, carrying logs, running up hills, or digging in the sand, all light up those proprioceptors and engage the brain to build body awareness.
Outdoor Occupational Therapy to Connect San Francisco Kids With Nature and Their Bodies.
Pretty much everything we do in nature-based occupational therapy involves concentration, proprioception, and heavy work elements. Meaning outdoor occupational therapy is great for improving body awareness!
Yes, it’s fun. Yes, your kids will get stronger, increase coordination, and improve body awareness.
And ultimately, our goal for your kid is for their time in the outdoors to create a positive impact that carries over to regular life in real and important ways.
In terms of body awareness, those are wins related to learning in the classroom and playing with friends.
Stuff like being able to:
Sit upright in a chair at school.
Apply the right amount of force when playing with friends or writing with a pencil.
Know where the body is in relation to objects and classmates.
Does outdoor occupational therapy sound like something your child might need? Set up a free consult to find out more about our program.
Ahn S.N. (2022) A Systematic Review of Interventions Related to Body Awareness in Childhood. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 19(15):8900. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19158900
Roll, J. P., Roll, R., & Velay, J.L. (1991). Proprioception as a link between body space and extra-personal space. In J. Paillard (Ed.), Brain and space (pp. 112–132). Oxford University Press.
Lopez, M. & Swinth, Y (2008) A Group Proprioceptive Program's Effect on Physical Aggression in Children, Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, & Early Intervention, 1:2, 147-166, DOI: 10.1080/19411240802313044
Kaufman, L. B., & Schilling, D.L. (2007) Implementation of a Strength Training Program for a 5-Year-Old Child With Poor Body Awareness and Developmental Coordination Disorder, Physical Therapy, Volume 87, Issue 4, 1 April, Pages 455–467, https://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20060170