The Tactile System
The tactile system, or sense of touch refers to the information we receive through the receptors in our skin. These receptors monitor our sensations including light touch, pressure (deep touch), temperature, and pain. They help us discriminate things we touch and come in contact with such as textures, shapes, size, and weight (North Shore Pediatric Therapy). Touch receptors begin developing in the womb and start with the face (Morgan, J., 2017)! When we are born, touch receptors help us explore and understand everything we come in contact with.
Tactile Processing Differences
Generally, light touch such as a bug crawling on your leg or the touch of a feather on your arm is altering, while deep pressure such as a hug is calming and organizing to the nervous system. Some children have difficulty processing sensory input in a typical way and are either hypersensitive or hyposensitive to this tactile input. This is often common in children with Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder.
Kids who are tactile defensive (hypersensitive to touch) are very sensitive to touch. With any sort of light touch or tactile input, they tend to go into “fight or flight” mode and be on high alert. When someone accidentally brushes their shoulder when they walk by, when it’s time to brush their teeth or hair, when it’s time to cut their nails, when they have to get dressed (especially with tags and seams), when they’re in crowds, when their hands or face are messy, and during mealtime may be especially hard. They may avoid touch, certain textures, and be picky eaters. These kids tend to seek out deep pressure touch (bear hugs, squeezes, massage, joint compressions).
On the other hand, kids who are underresponsive to touch, require more tactile input to feel the things typical peers would. They may be underresponsive to pain, seek crashing/jumping activities, and enjoy touching EVERYTHING! They may not notice when someone else touches them, might use too much pressure when using pencils or their spoon, won’t notice if their hands or face are dirty, and may leave clothes twisted all over their body (untucked, inside out, etc.).
The Importance of Tactile Sensory Play
Tactile sensory activities help develop hand and finger awareness, attention, and fine motor skills. Playing with sensory rich materials such as slime, playdoh, shaving cream, whipped cream, and water beads are great ways to integrate the sense of touch. It can introduce kids who are tactile defensive to different textures in a non-threatening, play-based way. It can also provide extra input to those tactile sensory seekers. Tactile sensory play promotes learning, imagination, creativity, and curiosity. It allows the brain to build pathways for proper sensory integration. It also helps with self-regulation as many tactile materials are calming (e.g. putty, playdoh) to the child. With so many benefits, tactile play should be a routine part of children’s lives!
Fun Tactile Sensory Activities
- Shaving cream, or an edible alternative, WHIPPED CREAM! Add sprinkles, a dash of jello powder, or food coloring- rub it on a mirror, window or make letters and write in it
- Go outside! Dig in the dirt, walk in the grass, touch flowers, rocks, leaves, and pinecones
- Sensory bins full of dry rice, beans, or water beads. I love these themed pre-made sensory bins from Curious Crates.
- Playdoh and slime- you can even DIY with some simple recipes!
- Cooked noodles, add food coloring to make it colorful
- Make letters or write in salt or sand- kinetic sand is awesome!
- Explore toys and books with different textures
Tips for the Child Who is Reluctant
- Have them help mix or spray the ingredients
- Use a spoon, spatula, or other object to touch the materials at first
- Keep hand wipes or your sink near by to wash hands when needed
- Never force, let them explore on their own time
The tactile system is the first sensory system to develop so it only makes “sense” that it’s imperative to neurodevelopment. Tactile sensory play is a great way to help integrate the senses for all children, especially those who are over or underresponsive to touch. There are endless opportunities to engage in tactile play throughout the day so go ahead and GET MESSY!!!