Published in S.I. Focus magazine (Winter issue), and adapted from a 1990 article originally in Carol’s column, “Gentle Reminders,” in Parent and Child magazine
A child comes to school on a soggy day. Tentatively approaching a puddle, she sticks in one spotless boot, watching with interest as her foot sinks into the mud. She puts in the other boot. She is entranced. Looking up, she says to her teacher, “Is this mud? It’s fun! Is it okay?”
A child comes to school in his caregiver’s immaculate car. Tearfully, he announces, “My babysitter said not to get dirty.” He cannot be persuaded to paint at the easel, jump in the mulch, or wriggle on the floor like a caterpillar, although he itches to get into the play.
A child comes to school on a wintry Monday. He says, “Daddy and I watched football all weekend. We’re couch potatoes!” Good news: Big Potato and Potato Chip spent time together. Bad news: they limited their sensory stimulation to watching television. They missed the chance at half time to engage in active, physical contact with each other, a leathery football, scrubby turf, and frosty air.
What’s wrong here? Have our children lost the freedom to get down and get dirty? Growing up to be tidy is commendable, but many children seem to be maturing without a strong sensitivity to touch.
The touch (or tactile) sense is essential to children’s development. Like vision and hearing, touch opens the main avenues of learning. Much of our knowledge about the importance of touch comes from the field of sensory integration (or sensory processing), pioneered by A. Jean Ayres, PhD, OTR. Her research revealed that the ability to interpret tactile information not only promotes optimum development of the young child’s nervous system, but also helps the child learn about his world.
Learning about the environment is a child’s primary occupation. His brain needs to process and organize all kinds of sensory information, just as his body needs all kinds of food to function best. His tactile sense provides information about texture, shape, density, pressure, temperature, and other attributes of the world.
Nature’s plan is simple: let the senses, working in sync, do the teaching. For children whose sensory processing develops typically, learning through messy play is pleasant and interesting. They know how to get the just-right amount to satisfy their neurological system. Some children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), however, may seem never to get enough tactile experiences; they crave more, more, more. Others may have tactile overresponsivity (or defensiveness), causing them to avoid touching and being touched. Whether seekers or avoiders, kids with SPD need tactile activities just as much as typical kids do.
When we encourage tactile experiences, we do more than provide vital nourishment for children’s maturing brains. We do more than offer the unadulterated fun of molding mud pies. We also open the way that may become their preferred route to learning. Just as the photographer Ansel Adams took the visual route, the composer Mozart the aural, and the sculptor Rodin the tactile, so each of us chooses one favorite mode.
What if Rodin’s babysitter didn’t let him get his hands dirty because he’d soil the upholstery? What if Julia Child’s mother kept her out of the kitchen because she’d spill flour? Or Jacques Cousteau’s father told him to read instead of lingering in the bathtub? Or the pope advised Gregor Mendel to pray more and spend less time messing with sweet peas? How deprived we all would be!
Rather than deprive our children, let’s broaden their sensory input with activities that are S.A.F.E. (Sensory-motor, Appropriate, Fun and Easy). Let’s provide tactile sensations of dough, water, clay, glue, rock, mud, sap, earth, paint, feathers and fur. Children thrive when their bodies ingest and digest all kinds of sensory stimuli. They may develop to their greatest potential if they have opportunities to feel rain on their faces, leaves in their hair, goo on their fingers, and mud between their toes.
SOME S.A.F.E. TACTILE EXPERIENCES FOR PRESCHOOLERS
• Finger-painting on a tray with chocolate pudding. This open-ended, hands-on activity feels as good as it tastes. Next time, offer shaving cream and enjoy the smell and easy clean-up.
• Digging for worms. Handling worms is about as tactile as you can get.
• Going barefoot, lakeside. The differences between firm and squishy, warm and cold, dry and wet are worth investigating.
• Forming rice balls or meatballs.
• Kneading playdough or real dough. Make shapes, people, pretzels, or blobs.
• Ripping paper. Strips of newspaper are useful to line the hamster cage. Strips of construction paper or tissue paper make beautiful collages. Remember that the process, not the product, is the goal.
• Discovering treasures in a Feely Box. (Cut a hand-sized hole in a shoebox lid. Fill the box with lentils, cotton balls, packing peanuts, or sand. Add buttons, shells, uncooked macaroni, or small toys.) The idea is to thrust a hand through the hole and let the fingers do the seeing. No peeking!
• Collecting seeds, pebbles, or shells in an egg carton. Loading up the receptacles and dumping them out is great fun for a very young child. The ability to sort and classify the items comes later.
• Petting the pet. Drying a wet dog, stroking a kitten, providing a finger perch for a parakeet, or hugging a baby are tactile experiences that make a child feel good, inside and out.