Sensory Development

Sensory Development

The interaction of the mind and the body comes through the experiences of the senses. These experiences then contribute to brain development.1 Countless amounts of sensory information enter the brain all the time from not only the eyes and ears, but also from every area of the body. The brain organizes and integrates all of these sensations to help the person function normally.2

The senses have sometimes been categorized as external and internal senses. The five familiar external senses are sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. There are several less familiar internal senses. One of them is the proprioceptive sense, which deals with the ability to process information about body position through the muscles and joints. The vestibular sense deals with the ability to process information about movement, gravity, and balance, primarily through the inner ear.3

The vestibular and visual systems are inseparably linked as neurological and functional connections. Together, vestibular coordination and visual perception provide the foundation for skillful movement through space. Proprioceptors in the neck, eyes, and body help to coordinate movements of the body to orient the head to the task at hand, which enables the body to maintain balance and move efficiently.4

Sensory development begins during gestation and continues throughout childhood. Infants discover their world through the senses. They process the sensory information they receive and interpret the meaning of these sensations to interact with their environment. As the child makes new discoveries through the senses, a neuronal pathway is created in the brain. The more the child is stimulated by the senses, the more likely new neuronal pathways are created and old pathways are strengthened in the brain.5

Sensory integration is the ability to take in, sort out, and connect information delivered by the senses. This is the fundamental activity that leads to communication between the child and his world. When the information is processed correctly, the brain is able to correctly interpret the information given. However, there can be processing difficulties that result in the child receiving too much sensory input or not enough.6

Sensory integration dysfunction can present many problems for a child and is often misdiagnosed by teachers, caretakers, and parents. Over-reacting to movement may cause a child to experience motion sickness and a fear of heights, which would cause the child to struggle on playground equipment when he is exposed to a merry-go-round or swing that disrupts his vestibular system. Sensory integration that is under-reacting to movement may result in a child that is constantly moving, which is often misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If a child experiences disturbances to his proprioceptive system, he may appear clumsy and may not be able to navigate playground equipment efficiently.7

In the 1940’s, psychologist Jean Piaget proposed that a child’s physical movement along with sensory integration is the basis for cognitive, social, and emotional development. Problems in movement can delay language development. If the development of the senses is impaired, correspondingly the development of intelligence and learning is hindered. If children lack ample opportunities to play outdoors and have rich sensory experiences, they can develop learning deficiencies that are readily seen in both school classrooms and on the playground.8

  • 1. Frost, Joe L., Pei-San Brown, John A. Sutterby, Candra D. Thornton. The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International, 2004. p. 208.
  • 2. “Basic Sensory Development.” Incredible < > 17 Sep. 2010.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. “Visual-Vestibular Coordination.” Occupational Therapy Associates. < > 16 Sep. 2010.
  • 5. “Sensory Development – Touch, Taste and Smell, Movement Sensations, Auditory System, Visual System, Sensory Systems In Concert – Body Position Sense.” < > 17 Sep. 2010.
  • 6. Op. cit., “Basic Sensory Development.”
  • 7. Op. cit., “Basic Sensory Development.”
  • 8. Struck, Peter. “Movement And Sensory Disorders In Today’s Children.” Waldorf Library. < > 17 Sep. 2010.