On the most basic level, the sense of touch (the tactile sense) helps us to define what is self and not self. It is a picture of boundaries. Through touch we find our separateness and our relatedness. Think about touching an object. Your sense of touch tells you something about the object you are touching – its physical qualities. It also tells you something about your own boundaries such as – is this something you welcome? The sense of touch could be called the sense of “trust.” It is in the sense of touch that we learn to trust (or not) the world.
When you really think about it – touch is two-fold: separating and connecting. Touch is one of the most important components of bonding with another person. Positive touch from others is necessary for an individual’s healthy development.
The sensory organ for touch is the skin. Our skin is the largest organ of the body with thousands of sensory cells (nerve endings) that detect pressure/weight, temperature, and pain. Your sense of touch allows you to tell the difference between rough and smooth, soft and hard, and wet and dry, sticky and smooth etc. Your finger tips, lips, and tongue have the most concentration of these nerve endings.
The sense of touch develops before all other senses in embryos and in labor and delivery. It is a primal sense – moving through birth canal – beginning life by touching our mother (canal/breast). It is the fundamental way in which infants learn about their environment and bond with other people. Think of how infants calm down when swaddled and wrapped. The experience of being held and stroked as an infant is critical to growing up with a strong sense of self. The sense of touch gives us a deep feeling of certainty.
It is so interesting that the sense of touch happens through out the entire surface of the skin – like when you sit, lie down, etc – and gives you the quality of that experience; hard, soft, warm, cool and so forth. Researchers have begun to look at how these concepts have given us meanings of relatedness. A child says “I can’t do it, it’s too hard” to say something is difficult. We talk about thin-skinned people, being “tough,” being “touched” by an experience – we use these specific qualities of the sense of touch to describe our relationships.
Through touching, children can feel a loving connection to their environment. It has been said that the fingers are the “ten hearts” and that the heart is the 11th finger. This points to the powerful impact of what touches our children. It is so deeply connected to the function of love. When a child experiences the world with touch – they are experiencing the world with love. It is also interestingly to consider the “trigger” finger and how we say “no” to the young child’s exploration of the environment by shaking our finger or spanking. This points to the value of redirection vs. saying “no” to the young child.
It is important to educate children in a way that provides them with a secure sense of touch. Healthy touch gives the growing child a sense of security and builds self-esteem. It is important to touch every child every day in the way they need it (being mindful of tactile defensive children).
The experience of touch in the classroom – the subtle experiences such as wood vs. plastic. Providing as natural as possible an environment give children a rich palette of touch. It is important to have real cotton, silks, wood, bees wax, handmade items in the classroom. This truth of materials (wood over plastic) educates a child’s sense of awe and respect.
- Find natural and healthy points of meaningful touch in the classroom. I stand at the door each morning to greet each student. I give them a pat or hug depending on their lead. I always let the child chose the hug. The most important thing is that they receive a loving, joyful touch of welcome. “I rejoice that you are here!”
- When we wash our hands or use sanitzer, I gentle hold their hands as I give them the soap. It is these small gestures that provide a deep sense of safety.
- Children do not have many opportunities to learn how to touch appropriately. We are living in a touch-fear society. We can help this by doing circle games, dancing, and other activities that require hand holding.
- When a child hurts another child – it is deeply healing for them to hug or touch lovingly the child who has been hurt. This is far more powerful than the standard “I am sorry.”
- I strive to provide a wide range of textures and surfaces in our classroom – for centers, art projects, and exploration. These help inform the ever deeping sense of touch. I feel it will give children a deep sense of comfort about the process of learning. This is a gift for life.
- Children with tactile problems can be touch sensitive (avoid touch) or hyposensitive (seek touch). A rich touch environment can help these children.
- It is important not to touch the back space of children who are tactile defensive.
- Children who are nervous need to be held tightly to feel the boundary of self.
- Touch releases the hormone Oxytocin which is calming. Rhythmical touch reduces anxiety and depression (think hand clapping games that children love to play).
There is so much to say about the sense of touch. It is a foundational sense to being a healthy human being. I think that the current wave of pushing down the academics and the heavy use of worksheets frightens me when we consider it in terms of touch. There is a reason that early childhood is play-based. It is touch-based. Children love the world through touch – they learn the world through touch.