The Balance Board routines that we teach have their origins in; Occupational Therapy, Vision Therapy and Speech Therapy. However, the Balance Board program does not involve diagnosis or therapy, nor is its application limited to specific disabilities.
The philosophy of the program is that the basic skill development that happens with Balance Board work can benefit everyone, learning difficulties or not.
Dr. Jean Ayres was an occupational therapist with extensive training in neurology. She pioneered Sensory Integration Therapy. Sensory Integration refers to the brain's ability to piece together information from all the senses to create a picture of the world around us.
People who have trouble integrating basic sensory information about their bodies such as touch, proprioception (internal sensing of muscle tension and joint positions), and vestibular information (relating to balance gravity and movement) tend to exhibit particular disorders.
Sometimes they cannot tell where their body is in space, and as a result they may be clumsy and unable to plan complex movement sequences or anticipate where a particular movement will take them.
Jean Ayres used many different types of physical equipment to develop sensory integration of basic body awareness, including swinging hammocks, large therapy balls, bolster swings and various kinds of balance boards.
Ayres determined that certain vestibular disorders are associated with learning disabilities, which gives us a clue as to why working on a Balance Board improves learning abilities.
Dr. Frank Belgau of the Visual Perception Laboratory at the University of Houston (1969), uses the Balance Board to improve vision and reading abilities.
He noticed that among the children who were referred to him for vision therapy there was a high incidence of balance problems and awkward walking patterns. Realizing that the sense of balance (vestibular system in the inner ear) is closely connected with the eye movements required for reading (vestibular-ocular reflex), Belgau created a series for Balance Board exercises to improve vision. As a vision specialist, he was able to extensively pre- and post-test his subjects, and he found significant gamins in visual skills and reading ability.
Nancy Rowe is a Speech Therapist. She has advanced Dr. Belgau's work beyond vision therapy and applied Balance Board work to such diverse applications as improving hearing , teaching the deaf to speak, and enhancing the neurological functioning of children with Down Syndrome. She has created exercises for achieving automaticity in movement, for improving fine motor skills affecting both handwriting and speech , for training sequencing skills affecting both motor and cognitive ability, and for increasing the capacity to maintain self-directed attention.
It seems odd to think that standing on a board with rockers would have any connection at all with improving learning abilities. Surprisingly, however, there are a number of very interesting reasons why the program produces remarkable results.
The Vestibular System
Located in the inner ear, the vestibular organs give us feedback about balance, movement and gravity. They are like inner gyroscopes, helping us to stand solidly and to move confidently without falling over.
Information from the vestibular organs is processed in the vestibular nuclei, which are clusters of brain cells located deep in the brain stem, the earliest part of the brain. It is here the information is integrated with other information (kinesthetic, proprioceptive) about how our body is positioned in space.
The vestibular system incorporates two important reflexes; the vestibulo-kinetic reflex (VKR) and the vestibulo-ocular reflect (VOR).
The VKR is what helps us automatically correct our balance when we are in danger of falling over. If we start to tilt to one side, vestibular input triggers the muscles on that side to contract and support us. This happens without thinking - at the reflex level.
The VOR allows us to fix our eyes on an object and continue to see it clearly even when our head is moving for instance, when jumping on a trampoline. The vestibular system senses head movement and automatically moves the eyes to correct their position so that they stay pointing in exactly the same direction. In our distant evolutionary past, this reflex enhanced our survival because we could see clearly while running from a predator or while chasing our dinner!
People with vestibular system problems may not be able to use the VKR and are so awkward at holding up their bodies. Balance training improves posture, which automatically improves how a
person feels about themselves. IT relieves the constant anxiety about whether they will fall over, stumble, or have an accident, and it lets them feel normal their peers instead of awkward and clumsy.
Vestibular system problems can also affect the VOR, which means that words will dance around on the page when the head moves even slightly. The precise eye movements required fro reading will be possible. The eyes will be hindered in tracking across the page and will tend to lose their place. Balance work, especially in combination with vision exercises, can assist the brain in learning to correct the problem.
One of Jean Ayres' hypotheses about sensory integration work was that basic functions affect higher functions. Based on this, she focused her training on body awareness and movement skills, knowing that the benefits would overflow into all areas of brain functioning. This is an important theoretical principle for Balance Board work-it provides another link between balance training and cognitive abilities.
Sensory integration is one of the most fundamental organizing principles both of our experience and of our brain.
In our experience, it allows us to piece together all the different bits of information that we perceive, and to make sense of it all. The smell of an orange, the colour orange, the rough feel of an orange peel, and the squishy sounds it makes as we peel it are all automatically combined into our experience of a single orange.
Without sensory integration, we might not make the connection between the orange we see and the orange that we smell, taste or touch. Our experience would be an unorganized chaos of countless separate sensations.
In our brain, sensory integration means that sensory neurons combine their outputs with other sensory neurons in a complex web of information extending throughout the entire brain. Within this complex web, there are certain keys threads which reach out to affect all the other threads in the web. One of these key threads is the vestibular system. The sensations of gravity and body movement form a basic reference for all of our sensory experience, and this is reflected in our neurological pathways.
These key threads in the neurological web of our brain the mechanism whereby standing on the Balance Board either alone or in combination with other sensory or cognitive training, activate or switches on our entire brain and opens up sensory channels for more efficient learning.
Origins of Balance Board Work
Dr. Levinson and Learning Disabilities ...Dr. Harold Levinson, of the New York University Medical Centre, has studied more than 20,000 dyslexics over a period of 30 years. He has published some very detailes research as well as a number of books for the public (easily read) including Smart But Feeling Dumb.
Dr. Levinson links a large number of learning disabilities to disorders of the vestibular system and has successfully treated these problems with antihistamines and motion-sickeness medications. He believed that his treatment works because the medications corrected the vestibular disorders.
Conditions successfully treated by Dr. Levinson include:
dyslexia and other reading problems
balance and coordination problems
inability to concentrate
moods swings and hyperactivity