In the brain, there are 5 times more nerves dedicated to the receiving and organizing of sensory information than there are nerves for coordinating movement, which emphasises just how important the role of the sensory system is in our everyday lives.

The brain locates, sorts and orders sensations, somewhat like a traffic officer directing cars. Tactile, Vestibular and Proprioceptive processing is at the core of the sensory system, leading up to the five basic sensory systems.

If we had to break down a child’s development to its simplest form, it would be explained by the creation of synapses by the growth of dendrites, axons and terminals. In English, this is merely referring to the growth and development of nerves and nerve endings in the brain that are inherently responsible for our everyday functions, and hence our learning ability. Sensory stimulation and exploration encourages the creation of new dendrites, and the formation of new synapses, or nerve joinings.
Learning Ability
Academic Learning
Functional Ability, Cognition and Intellect
Perceptual Motor
Sensory Motor
Sensory Systems
Central Nervous System
Activities of
Daily Living
Ocular Motor
Ability to
Screen Input
Awareness of two
sides of the body
figure 1
Learning occurs in the form of a “building block triangle” (figure 1). The central nervous system is at the foundation. Each layer of building blocks must properly integrate with the previous layer or layers in order to move on to the next level. The ultimate goal is to reach the cognitive level of functioning in order to attend to the tasks of daily living and learning. The building clearly illustrates the key importance of the senses, and how the rest of our learning ability completely relies on the foundation of the senses.

No one part of the central nervous system works alone. Information travels from the source of the sensory information, to the brain, and back again to execute a response. Each sense and each building block to learning is interlinked with the other.

"Touch facilitates vision, vision aids balance, balance aids body awareness, body awareness aids movement and movement aids learning".

In saying this, it starts to explain the importance of sensory stimulation. Sensory stimulation awakens and ‘excites’ the brain encouraging a mind and body that is ready for learning through functional activity.

Correct and adequate stimulation leads to the development of more connections between the brain and the cells which results in optimal brain function and hence facilitating learning ability.

Sensory Integration, in its most simplest of explanations, is the process of organizing and sorting all the information that we receive from all of our senses, and then, if the brain performs this task adequately, we are able to automatically and appropriately respond to a particular object or situation.

In order for the brain to receive and organise sensory information, and then generate appropriate responses, it has to perform certain tasks. These are vital in assisting us in integrating our senses and inherently the ability to self regulate.

These processes are:

• Modulation:

The brain is very selective as to which nerve pathways are switched on or off at one particular time. It basis this regulation on the activity we are doing, and the level of arousal needed for such an activity. For example, if you are playing soccer, neural pathways are switched on to increase brain activity for focus on many things at once. If you are reading a book however, it requires a different level of concentration, and neural pathways are switched off, so that you can focus on the book.

• Inhibition:

The brain determines the sensory information that is required for a particular task as well as the activity level that is needed and will reduce the sensory intake accordingly. Our sensory system decides what sensory information around us needs to be ‘shut-out’ in order to prevent becoming over-stimulated and hence unable to perform the task at hand appropriately. For example: a child sitting in a classroom - the sensory intake system needs to inhibit, or prevent irrelevant sounds coming from around the child that does not pertain to the task at hand, i.e. the ceiling fan.

• Habituation:

After a certain amount of time that our sensory system has been exposed to a particular stimulus, our brain automatically starts to tune these familiar sensory messages out. Initially when you start wearing a new ring on your finger, you constantly feel the pressure of the ring around your finger. However, after some time, you are no longer even consciously aware of the fact that there is a ring on your finger. The same applies to things like seatbelts, braces and many other repetitive sensory stimuli.

• Facilitation:

The brain controls connections between sensory intake and behavioral output according to feelings of displeasure (e.g. motion sickness) or pleasure (e.g. the calming feeling of being rocked to and fro). Facilitation is when the brain sends messages giving us the sense of needing to stop activities or will give us the "go ahead" signal for pleasurable activities.

In little ones, namely babies and children, most neurological pathways, although they are developing rapidly, are still immature. The world surrounding them is filled with different sensory information which is flooding their little minds and bodies at an alarming rate. Due to the underdeveloped nature of their neurological systems, this can be exceptionally overwhelming for little ones and hence over-stimulation and sensory overloading are a reality in infants and children.

This has recently been shown to be a key factor in the cause and understanding of fussy babies. Knowing about the senses, sensory integration and the impact that it can have on our minds and body is a powerful tool during parenthood.

So, finally, this is how sensory integration works. Our immature sensory systems have to learn to tolerate all the incoming information from the highly sensational world around us, so that we can utilise it effectively in order to maximise our functioning in our everyday lives. This is done through adequate and correctly applied sensory exploration. This is fundamental to a child’s developmental and maturation process and hence the foundation skills for later learning.

Take the following examples:

If you are reading a book, in order for you to focus on the book appropriately, you need to be able to shut out the following information:

• Surrounding noises - such as the aeroplane flying overhead, the rugby on the TV in the next room,

• Certain sensations - the feeling of the cushion under your back, the pressure of the book resting on your tummy, the texture of the pages of the book

• Certain internal sensations - the feeling of starting to get a little bit hungry, your heart starting to beat a little bit faster during an exciting part of the book.

The above are just a few examples of how your arousal level and concentration can be influenced by many sensory factors around you. If your sensory system was not appropriately integrated, the ability to filter out and organise incoming sensory information from both the world around you, as well as your own world inside your body, you would find it very difficult to maintain concentration and level of arousal and focus on your book.

If we take a little toddler for example.

You decide to sit down and do a puzzle with her. You are sitting in the same room as her older brother who is watching Sponge Bob Square Pants on the TV. She is recently potty trained and needs the toilet, but is too excited to do a puzzle with mommy. The dog lying beside the couch is chewing on his favourite squeaky toy. You have just come in from playing outside watering the garden, and not to forget, each other! It’s almost bath supper time, but before this, your little girl begs you to do a puzzle with her. During the activity, you notice she is exceptionally fidgety, rocking back and forth, sitting up, lying down. She is not executing the puzzle as well as normal and she is getting very grumpy and agitated at her inability to do it properly. She is becoming tearful and if the situation continues, it may just result in a complete melt down.

If we break the situation down into its basic sensory components, we can learn a lot about how sensory integration and overload can influence not only our learning, but our everyday moments too!

So here the little girl sits - The feeling of damp clothes around her body; the vibrant noises from the TV and the repetitive squeaky sound from the dog’s toy; the need for the toilet as well as the feeling of needing some supper;

The way she is moving from position to position, is her body’s way of trying to cope with the vast amount of sensory information around her.

As she is still little, her neurological systems are still immature, and her ability to cope with such a huge amount of sensory information is still developing.

If the activity had been carried out with a dry set of clothes, after a loo break, and perhaps during supper, regardless of the TV and the dog's squeaky toy, she may have been able to perform the task much better. The problem was that she had way too much going on both in her outer environment, as well as her inner sensations, which led to sensory overload and hence teary and frustrated behaviour.

This is where the understanding of the sensory world, our own senses and sensory integration can help us as parents to try and be more aware of the situations we find ourselves in, and how we can minimise tantrums, and utilise our time more effectively to optimise learning!

So, finally, this is how sensory integration works. Our immature sensory systems have to learn to tolerate all the incoming information from the highly sensational world around us, so that we can utilise it effectively in order to maximise our functioning in our everyday lives. This is done through adequate and correctly applied sensory exploration. This is fundamental to a child’s developmental and maturation process and hence the foundation skills for later learning.

Spot on Tots is able to assist you, the parent, by making available Sensory Boxes containing products, tools and toys that encourage sensory awareness, exploration and fun.
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