In early child development, touch, the tactile sense, forms experiences that nourish us, calm us, and create bonds of attachment with others. As children explore through touch, they begin to learn, adapt and adjust to the environment. This provides opportunities to engage in play and self-care activities, promoting emotional well-being, and building appropriate behaviour responses.
What is the tactile sense?
Our tactile sense is the system we use to recognise and respond to touch, when we explore our environments and interact with others. It is the largest of all our sensory systems. It is made up of millions of receptors found in the skin that detect touch, pressure, texture, temperature, and pain.
Clamber Club Expert and Occupational Therapist, Jade Antunes Shield has this to say. “To put the importance of our tactile sense into perspective, we only have to think of the special mother-infant bond… We rely on touch when caring for our babies and often use touch to calm and engage with them.”
The importance of touch
Touch input plays a modulatory role in regulating and organising the brain, keeping it balanced and well nourished. “Every person has a unique neurological makeup, which determines our thresholds for tactile sensations. Like what kind of touch we like or don’t like… And how much or how little touch we enjoy and are able to tolerate,” says Antunes Shield.
“For children with difficulty modulating tactile input, many touch experiences are not enjoyable. Some may even be unbearable,” says Liz Senior, Occupational Therapist and Founder of Clamber Club. “When it impacts on daily routines and tasks, a modulation disorder referred to as tactile defensiveness.” Children with tactile defensiveness may exhibit a cluster of reactionary behaviours. Examples include a dislike of certain clothing fabrics, avoidance of messy play/food opportunities, discomfort with close body contact, and an inability to endure self-care activities such as brushing teeth.
The second function of our tactile sense, is its discriminatory role. “Touch sensations are interpreted and processed by our brain to provide clear information about the qualities of touch we experience, such as the quantity, location, size and shape,” explains Antunes Shield. “This information is used functionally in the development of skills such as oral motor skills, coordinated movement, body awareness, motor planning, and hand functions.”
Children with poor tactile discrimination have difficulty understanding and interpreting the sensations they experience through touch. “For these children, gross and fine motor tasks may be very challenging. They don’t receive clear messages about the relationship between their bodies and the external environment,” explains Senior. They may also be messy eaters, struggle with independent dressing and eating activities, and often find new tasks very challenging.
Activities to develop your child’s tactile sense:
- Cover flooring and equipment with different textured fabrics. Encourage them to roll, sit and crawl on and over them during playtime.
- Encourage water play during bath time and swimming lessons.
- Provide access to toys and foods that can be manipulated in hand, and chewed.
Activities for toddlers
- Crawl, roll, and “swim” through mattresses, blankets, ball pits, textured tunnels, and foam mats.
- Provide messy play with finger paint, instant pudding, jelly and custard.
- Provide feely boxes (wet and dry) with seeds and beans, cooked spaghetti or jelly.
Activities for pre-schoolers
- Build obstacle courses that involve crawling and creeping over different tactile equipment. Try things like tactile mats (carpet, sandpaper, cotton wool, sponge, sand) and textured tunnels.
- Provide jump and crash opportunities. Use different fillings for crash pads, such as polystyrene, foam or sponge, or cut up pool noodles.
- Build shapes, numbers and letters with crazy clay, silly putty, playdough and pipe cleaners.
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