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Thursday, May 26, 2022
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Think back to your childhood. Likely most of your fond memories had you digging for worms, finger painting or eating pasta (we called them noodles…) with your hands. You probably had some textures that you loved and some that you hated—probably still do—but you learned about the world through your sense of touch. We refer to this as your tactile sense. Touch is an important part of learning for young children and getting messy is an important part of childhood. Now, if you’re the one in the house responsible for doing laundry, you may be thinking to yourself “Really? Is it really so important for a child to get dirty? My job is complicated enough without putting my child in front of a table of finger paints and telling him/her to go to town!”

Well, actually, more and more of our children are demonstrating signs of being hypersensitive to textures and tactile stimulation. While we recognize that many of these cases are situations where the child is experiencing other sensory issues, and we can discuss those at another time depending on reader interest, Some cases are simply situations where the child has not ever been afforded the opportunity to experience play with a variety of textures thereby developing an aversion to touch.

The next obvious question is “So what? Why does my child need to like touching textures?” From very early on, infants are soothed and comforted through touch. Infants learn about the power of touch and how it can be calming to them. As children get older (and let’s face it even us adults), are soothed and calmed by touch. Many of us are found to be fidgeting with objects to help us stay focused. In fact we often recommend fidget toys and squishy balls to help children in class remain focused. From this we learn that touch can help us focus and remain on tasks. Finally, while some children are more auditory learners and others are more visual learners, all children learn best with multisensory experiences particularly when it involves actually touching what you are learning about.

As pediatric therapists, we have been fortunate to have visited some great preschool classrooms locally and present workshops to both teachers and parents. By our observation (yes, this is purely anecdotal), the classrooms that had greater emphasis on sensory play and getting dirty seemed to have the happiest children. Now you might be thinking that of course, what could be better to a child than rolling around in the mud or getting themselves all wet while playing at the water table? You are actually right and that is exactly our point. Most children are happiest when they are participating in sensory play because that is the best way for their young nervous systems to learn.

For example, I have been in classrooms that change the “sensory table” depending on the season. In the fall it may be filled with autumn leaves, pine cones and acorns that the children have collected; in winter they might make ice and help it melt or play with InstaSnow (a fantastic powder made by Be Amazing that grows when water is added and looks like snow and feels awesome to touch); in Spring it may be filled with flowers and as the weather gets warmer it is a perfect time for sand play.

For you to do this at home, there are so many possibilities and countless opportunities for children to play. Remember, parents, you can do this at home and it doesn’t have to be expensive. If you are concerned about the mess you can have messy play outside only or kitchen only or basement only…you get the idea. Think about putting a vinyl tablecloth on the floor, you can just pick it up and shake it outside when you are done. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Start your children when they are young. As soon as they are in high chairs and eating solids, allow your young babies to feed themselves. Sit with your child to supervise and encourage. This is a great tactile experience

Look online for recipes to make your own dough, slime or ooblik. There are so many options on the Internet to help you.

If you don’t feel like making your own, buy a few tubs of dough, slime or putty. There are great companies out there making some really super products for kids.

Of course, allow your child to play in the dirt, sand or other outdoors types of mess.

Encourage your children to help you in the kitchen. Activities like kneading dough, baking and washing fruits and veggies are a great way to have a real hands-on experience.

To get started, don’t overwhelm yourself. Prepare a storage container with the supplies that you choose. Keep that container out of your children’s reach and pull it out in a controlled environment. This will help you slowly get used to the idea of having your child participate in messy play.

And last but not least, maybe you want to roll up your sleeves and join them! You may have more fun that you think!

We would love people to submit any questions related to this topic or another that you would like to see explored in this column.

Alyssa Colton MA, OTR and Aviva Lipner MA, OTR are pediatric occupational therapists and owners of Kids’ Therapy Place, LLC info_kidstplace.com

By: Alyssa Colton MA, OTR/L and Aviva Lipner MA, OTR/L

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