Proprioception: Our (hidden!) sense for body awareness, emotional regulation, and calming

Kimberly Lindgren, OTR/L - April 2, 2020

Digging through a foam pit provides lots of proprioceptive input!

Have you ever become so angry that you punched a pillow? Or felt sad (in the ‘blue zone’) so cuddled tightly with pillows and a blanket? How about after a morning workout or run and felt ready to seize the day? In each of these situations, your proprioceptive system helped you to achieve ‘emotional regulation’ – it helped you to calm down and feel more at ease.

One of our hidden senses* is proprioception, which is the awareness of our body position in time and space. For example, close your eyes and without looking lift your hand up and put it next to your head. You are able to do this (hopefully accurately!) because of your proprioceptive system. The sensory receptors for this input lie between our muscles, joints, and ligaments; they are activated by compression, traction, and contraction of these body parts. Proprioceptive input contributes to a wide range of motor skills (e.g. body awareness, coordination, motor planning) and overall emotional regulation.  

Oftentimes, therapists will use “heavy work” (proprioceptive input activities) to help a child learn to self-regulate. This may look like hanging from a trapeze bar, squishing theraputty, jumping, carrying weighted balls, climbing, or pushing a crash pad! We always try to pair these heavy work activities in the context of play. Not only is this more fun for children, but play is foundational for emotional regulation and social skills (Kestly, 2014).

In the gym, climbing is another way to get 'heavy work'

Proprioceptive input is extremely important, especially as our children are inside for most of the day, are no longer in recess or P.E., and have restricted access to playgrounds. It is best for a child to get bits of this input throughout their day. Out of creative ideas? See below a list of ideas for “heavy work” (proprioceptive) activities you can do at home with your child, as well as functional activities that are already built into your day. You just may need a little extra time to provide more guidance for your child! :)

Functional Heavy Work Activities: 

  • Clean-up. Have your child do most of the work! Extra heavy work if you allow your child to build a couch mountain or slide, and then have them help put all the couch cushions and pillows back where they belong! 
  • Open doors. Wherever you go (car, throughout the house, errands), have your child do the ‘heavy work’ to open or close the doors.
  • Water plants. Have your child push/pull/carry the watering can and pour the water out.
  • Push chairs in. Incorporate it as a chore after dinner. Have your child push all the chairs in after dinner time. 
  • Help make meals. Sit your child at the counter or table - or set up a stool on the floor as your little chef’s ‘mixing station’. They can help mix when you make pasta, stew, or mac & cheese. The more gooey and thick the thing they’re stirring, the more heavy work they do!
  • Story time. Have your child do the ‘heavy work’ to select and bring the book to bed or your designated reading spot.

More Heavy Work Activities (with minimal set-up!): 

  • Rock Collecting. Select a basket, box, or container that your little one can carry. Let them explore the backyard or go for a nature walk and select their favorite “treasures” (rocks). Encourage your child to carry the container to maximize the heavy work.
  • Bed Burrowing. Have your child start at one end of the bed and burrow under the sheets, blankets, and comforter. Prompt them to crawl, crawl, crawl all the way to the other end of the bed. Need more heavy work? Stack additional pillows or couch cushions on top of the bed for them to burrow under and tuck the blankets/sheets in at the end for them to untuck!
  • Magic Carpet Ride. Lay a blanket or towel on the floor. Load up a laundry basket, box, or container with stuffed animals (and weighted items like a text book or bag of beans/rice). Have your child pull the towel to make the magic carpet go! Is your child tired of pulling? Have them sit on the towel instead and pull them around the house or room.

Enjoy and have fun!


*In addition to our five well-known senses (taste, feel, sound, sight, smell), there are 3 ‘hidden senses’ which include interoception, vestibular processing, and proprioception.

Kestly, T. A. (2014). The interpersonal neurobiology of play: Brain-building interventions
for emotional well-being. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.