Understanding The Sensory System And The Importance Of “Sensory Pathways”

by Timothy D. Davis, Ph.D.

Sensory “pathways,” or where and how we move, are a natural part of every child’s day. Take a moment and think about what your child does throughout their day (for example, from the time they get up from their bed, to the bathroom, down the hall, up and down stairs, to the table, to the car/bus, to school, to the playground, etc.) 

In each situation, your child is being flooded with a variety of sensory stimuli across a host of different environments they encounter. These experiences are part of a continuous series of sensory “pathways” that help them learn about their environment, what is expected of them, and how they are supposed to act in everyday situations.  

Sadly, many children’s sensory “pathways,” and ultimately their sensory systems of the body, are simply not challenged enough (Edutopia/WHO, 2019). The CDC reports that children under the age of 10 have as much as 4-5 hours a day of screen time (tv, laptop, game box, cell phone, iPad, etc.). Because much of this time is spent sedentary or in a seated position, the child’s sensory “pathways” are limited or marginalized. 

If your sensory system is under-stimulated, our bodies often seek out ways to find stimulation and satisfy that need. For children, this could look like off-task behavior, pushing or shoving, throwing things, impulsive outbursts or complete meltdowns. The CDC also suggests that children under age 8 should be active for at least an hour of every day. However, a recent NIH research study reports (Madigan, 2019) that children who have excessive screen time leading to sedentary behavior at ages as young as (1-3 years) were failing to meet developmental milestones. Delays were found in areas such as language and communication, problem-solving, and fine and gross motor skills by the time these children were age 5. These delays are associated with limited sensory “pathway” exposure, which essentially means your child is simply not moving enough in his or her environment. Your child is not experiencing or processing all the sensory input they need to fully develop and to meet developmental milestones.

The research findings suggest that screen time promotes sedentary behaviors, leading to a greater propensity for later health-related risks. Providing a comprehensive approach to ensuring that children have ample opportunity to engage in daily physical activity (by increasing opportunities to experience new sensory pathways) is critical to development. 

Increasing opportunities to enhance a child’s sensory pathways, when created in a meaningful and thoughtful way, can contribute to a child’s overall health and daily well-being.

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