As PT’s who work with kids, we often talk about their body awareness. This refers their ability to know where their body is in space. But what does that mean? I recently had a very clear visual of this. My dog had to have surgery on his leg and ended up wearing a cone on his head to prevent him from licking the incision. Because he was wearing the cone, the dimensions of his body changed but he had very little awareness of this change. As a result, he frequently ran into things with the cone because his body (with the cone on) was now larger than what he was used to and what his senses were telling him. He had almost an extra foot of space for his head that he was not used to having to navigate with.
Kids (and adults) are similar. Their body has receptors that send messages to the brain letting it know where each individual part is at any given time. Generally we don’t think about this because it’s automatic. Actually, a good way to think about it is if you ever move furniture around in your house, especially if it changes the dimensions of a walkway, how many times did you bump into the piece of furniture? Eventually though your brain and body automatically remembered that the piece of furniture was there and you avoided it without a second thought.
Sometimes, the messages between our brains and our bodies don’t always match up or the message is misheard (remember playing telephone, or whisper down the lane as a child?). When this happens, kids are less aware of where their body is and they have to pay attention, just like you had to when you first moved the furniture around. They may also compensate by relying on what they can see to help get the messages through. While this is a great tactic it may not always work as well because vision is then trying to pick up the slack for the body and just like when we are overworked or tired, it can’t do all the work. So, if your child is tired or they are in a busy environment, or a new place, you may see them bumping into things more than you would if they are well rested, in a calm environment, and/or in a familiar environment.
Another time you will see this in almost all children is when they have a growth spurt. Their bodies grow faster than their receptors can recalibrate so the messages being sent to the brain are a little disorganized or misinformed. That’s why kids often seem clumsy right after they have grown a ton. Their bodies are still recalibrating and learning their new size so they can send clear and accurate messages to the brain.
I hope this helps you to understand why your child may be bumping into objects or seem to be ‘all arms and legs.’ And for some kids it is temporary because of a growth spurt, for other kids, they may need strategies to help ‘wake up’ the receptors in their body so that they begin to send more organized and accurate information to the brain. We will talk about some of these strategies in an upcoming post.
If this sounds like your child, you might want to contact a local pediatric physical therapist for some strategies and suggestions.