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, providing 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 and is made up of millions of receptors found in the skin that detect sensations such as touch, pressure, texture, temperature, and pain.
“To put the importance of our tactile sense into perspective, we only have to think of the special mother-infant bond, of how much we rely on touch when caring for our babies, and how often we use touch to calm and engage with our babies,” explains Clamber Club Expert and Occupational Therapist, Jade Antunes Shield.
The importance of touch
Touch input plays a modulatory role in regulating and organising the brain, keeping it balanced and well nourished. “Each and every person has a unique neurological makeup, which determines our thresholds for tactile sensations and what kind of touch we like and 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, and some may even be unbearable,” says Liz Senior, Occupational Therapist and Founder of Clamber Club. “When this impacts on daily routines and tasks, a modulation disorder referred to as tactile defensiveness can be made,” she adds. Children with tactile defensiveness may exhibit a cluster of behaviours, including 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, as 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, and 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 etc.
- Provide feely boxes (wet and dry) with seeds and beans, cooked spaghetti, jelly etc.
Activities for pre-schoolers:
- Build obstacle courses that involve crawling and creeping over different tactile equipment such as tactile mats (carpet, sandpaper, cotton wool, sponge, sand) and textured tunnels
- Provide jump and crash opportunities and use various fillings for crash pads such as polystyrene, foam/sponge, cut up pool noodles etc.
- Build shapes, numbers and letters with crazy clay, silly putty, playdough and pipe cleaners
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