How do our learners get information about the world and how it works? It is incredible to consider that all this information comes from our senses! While so much learning takes place through vision and hearing, touch is an often overlooked sense that is critical to child development. You can tap into this sense to engage students of all ages while creating and reinforcing connections in the brain.
The tactile sense is our sense of touch. The receptors are located in our skin, and nerve endings all over our body send information about contact back to the brain for processing. The touch sense tells us about texture and temperature and gives us feedback when working with our hands. The sensory receptors on the fingertips are densely packed, allowing fingertips to be very sensitive to the quality of touch.
Many essential developmental skills develop alongside the sense of touch. Some of these include:
- Development of hand dominance
- Bilateral coordination (using both hands together)
- Hand skills
- Body awareness
- Midline crossing
- Discrimination (the ability to discern the type, quality, and location of the touch input)
Intact tactile perception can help children participate in lots of activities such as:
- Holding a crayon or pencil to draw or write
- Beading, playing with Legos, and other toys that require two hands
- Getting dressed for recess or cleaning up a mess
- Using scissors for arts and crafts
- Eating and helping to prepare food
- Playing board or card games with friends
Differences in Touch Perception
It is important to note that some children are overresponsive to touch input, and others are underresponsive. You can think of it as a continuum with few children on either end of the spectrum and most falling somewhere in the middle. Children who are overresponsive to sensory input may:
- Avoid messy play like fingerpainting, making slime, or playing in the sandbox
- Have difficulty wearing certain clothing textures (jeans are a common one)
- Pull away from you or lash out if you gain their attention by tapping their arm
On the other side of the continuum, underresponsive children need more input to register information about touch. These kids may:
- Not notice when their face or hands need to be wiped
- Touch friends often but do not notice when they are touched
- Have a high pain tolerance
Helping Students Regulate their Tactile Sense
Teachers who recognize how their learners perceive touch can use this knowledge to support them before a behavior is triggered or after a challenge arises. Even more critical, respecting their boundaries related to touch or giving them the input they need can take the classroom from an alerting and dysregulating place to a safe setting for learning. For children who appear to be on the extreme ends of the continuum, you may want to check in with an occupational therapist for specific recommendations. For the rest of the classroom, the following strategies tend to be universally helpful:
Let the child be in control: Exploring a new sensory bin? Planting seeds or enjoying water play? Give your students time and space; it is okay if students aren’t ready to jump right in. Many children prefer to get information through their visual senses first- watching and observing before using their hands. You can read about seasonal sensory bin ideas, here.
Accommodate: Introduce a tool for overresponsive children who are curious to explore. This could include a paintbrush for fingerpaint, a scoop for the sensory bin, or even a smock and gloves. Children who love engaging in tactile materials will dive in, so be ready with wipes for clean-up. Again, most students will fall in between these two extremes, but it is helpful to be prepared to modify so that everyone can fully participate.
Encourage parents to pack layers: One of the most accessible adjustments kids can make is to change their clothing. This strategy can be used to warm up or cool down, switch to a more comfortable texture, or even get a bit of extra calming proprioceptive input with tighter, more fitted clothing (see next point).
Provide proprioceptive input: Participation in ‘heavy work’ activities is important for little learners. The receptors for the proprioception sense are actually in muscle fibers, tendons, and joints and tell you information about where your body is in space. Giving input to this system tends to be universally calming. Therefore, it is an excellent strategy for children with various sensory needs. Have your students take an intentional movement break every two hours. Wheelbarrow walking, jogging in place, obstacle courses, and yoga stimulate the proprioceptive system. Build-in classroom jobs like wiping down tables, carrying books to the library, holding the door, and moving or stacking chairs for kids who need a little bit extra calming input.
Avoid certain kinds of touch: Some touch, such as tickling, feels alarming and dysregulating for most people. The unexpected nature of where they’ll be tickled plus the light touch are a challenging combination for kids. Light touch (a gentle brush against the hand) can also be over-alerting. It is always best to verbalize when you use physical contact to minimize any adverse impact.
Tactile Activities for the Classroom
- Use manipulatives: Base ten blocks, counting bears, letter magnets, dice, playing cards, and mini erasers are popular with younger grades. Manipulatives for older students may include recycled materials, STEM and art supplies, or Legos.
- Sensory bins: Try a dry filler (beans, rice, colored pasta) and add small materials that correlate with what your students are learning or excited about. Escalate your sensory bin by turning it into a water table for a new tactile experience!
- Fidgets: It is easy to write off fidgets as disruptive, but when we teach our students to use them as a learning tool, they learn about self-regulation. Help students notice if a fidget is or is not helping them learn. Try resistive putty, fidget cubes, and stretchy bands.
- Craft projects: Expose your students to all kinds of textures with glue, feathers, pom poms, cotton balls, popsicle sticks, and more. Make it structured or open-ended, whatever suits your classroom.
- Prepare a snack: A sensory and life-skill activity all in one! Peel oranges, spread hummus, or mash berries for a pressure-free way to interact with food.
The sense of touch is essential for brain development, and making use of this can help facilitate learning in any subject area. Have fun exploring the sense of touch while learning and growing with your students!
Now it’s your turn? Did we leave your favorite tactile activity for the classroom or at home off the list? Tell us in the comments.
Dr. Kayla Hartt is an occupational therapist, writer, and educator. She spends about half of her time working directly with young kids in her private practice, and the other half writing, creating, and collaborating. Kayla has a passion for educating parents and teachers on best practices in pediatric occupational therapy. Special areas of interest include sensory processing, fine motor development, handwriting, interdisciplinary collaboration, and burnout prevention. Kayla lives in Maine with her husband and two-year-old daughter.