Several weeks ago, at the ASLA conference in Los Angeles, Greg Miller, principal landscape architect at MRWM, and Lucy Miller, founder and director at the STAR institute for Sensory Processing Disorder, discussed how children with sensory disorders benefit from strategically designed playgrounds and gardens.
Their presentation drew my thoughts to a lesser known neuro-cognitive development area, in which children process sensory information, called the vestibular system. Centered in the inner ear near the auditory cochlea, the system encompasses our sense of movement and gravity, and lets us know if our bodies are upright, upside down, or askew. The vestibular system also interacts with other sensory signals and motor information to influence body awareness and behavioral regulation. If the system functions properly, we understand where we are in relation to the earth, and to other people, and feel secure in the world.
Dora Angelaki and David Dickman at the Baylor College of Medicine provide an excellent scientific overview on the website Noba, beginning with a discussion of dizziness: “Remember the dizzy feeling you got as a child after you jumped off the merry-go-round or spun around like a top? These feelings result from activation of the vestibular system, which detects our movements through space but is not a conscious sense like vision or hearing.” They point out that the system is “extremely important for everyday activities, with vestibular signals being involved in much of the brain’s information processing that controls such fundamental functions as balance, posture, gaze stabilization, spatial orientation, and navigation, to name a few.”
Some therapists worry that children’s vestibular systems aren’t getting the stimulation they need to develop properly. The Integrated Learning Strategies in Utah is one of several therapeutic centers that have published pieces expressing such concern. With increasing time spent in front of screens, the removal of kinesthetic elements from playgrounds, and fewer hours for free play, the thinking goes, children are not experiencing enough multi-directional movement to engage and strengthen their vestibular systems.
Michelle Shriver, an occupational therapist at All Bright Therapies in Chicago, says it is common for children who experience dysfunction in their vestibular systems to avoid certain kinds of playground equipment. But parents and caregivers can help their children by encouraging them to use swings and spinning equipment and making progress in small steps. Though such equipment can be initially unsettling for these children, with appropriate guidance it can be used to help improve their motion perception and coordination.
So here’s a look at some of Goric’s offerings that target the vestibular system, and how the equipment may help children improve their sense of spatial orientation and gravitational security.
Typically, when you swing, you toss your head backward and extend your legs, forcing the body into a non-upright position and cutting an arc through space. However, for children with vestibular disorders, this motion can be frightening. The Occupational Therapy Toolbox suggests children may develop the comfort and willingness to use swings by first lying prone, in a superman position, and swinging slowly to become accustomed to the movement.
Goric’s Seagull swing is a great choice for designers looking to introduce children reluctant to use swings to radial movement. The swing’s vertical pipes are fitted with springs that allow the seats to bounce up and down, and the top bar pivots to produce a gentle rocking motion. Because it is a reactive swing that can be co-operated, a child with delayed vestibular development can develop these skills (with adult supervision), alongside another child who begins to bounce or swing. The cooperative aspect of the design boosts a child’s interest and confidence.
The Basket Swing 2.0, which allows children to swing while cradled in soft netting, is another excellent choice, providing a supportive structure to help ease children into swinging.
There is a reason Angelaki and Dickman open their article on the vestibular system by referencing to the merry-go-round. The turning sensation of the classic playground fixture activates the vestibular system by stimulating the movement of fluid through the inner ear. But for a variety of reasons it’s becoming rare to see them on modern playgrounds.
Goric’s Integration Carousel updates the classic merry-go-round by making it safer, wheelchair accessible, and designed to spin at ground level. Another great option to get kids spinning is The Gazebo, a twirling pod resembling a Tilt-a-Whirl amusement car, which allows children to control the speed of their spinning while helping them feel securely contained in space. For children who enjoy spinning but are fearful of heights and relish the control of being capable of starting and stopping their movement quickly, the Turning Point is a welcome addition to the playspace. Children can lie on their bellies as they spin on the rippled stainless steel ball, mimicking the pre-swinging posture that engages core muscles integral to maintaining equilibrium. And for older children, age 5 and up, the Dish, a cooperative spinner that can be turned by small groups of children, provides a heightened challenge. It can be used while sitting, lying, and standing upright and activates key stabilizing muscles that enhance coordination and spatial awareness.
A number of other great options can be found here.
When it comes to sensory processing regulation, the vestibular system is a critical sixth sense that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. If you’re reading this blog as a landscape architect or playground designer, we hope you’ll consider Goric’s dynamic swings and spinners, as well as and playground options, for engaging this important area of neurologic regulation and development.