The Power of Touch
The feel of freshly washed laundry against the skin, holding our child’s hands and checking the temperature of a bath by putting our elbow into the water are all ways humans benefit from the power of touch. Our sense of touch conveys a great deal of information about the world to our brains and is key in human bonding and emotional regulation. Touch taps into our body’s autonomic nervous system. Stroking our child’s arm, or providing a warm hug for example, can calm their breathing and heart rate during times of distress or tension. Even holding or caressing a physical object such as a shell, fluffy cushion or delicate flower can be soothing.
Touch is the earliest of the five external senses to develop. Around just 16-weeks after conception, the sense of touch begins to develop, meaning that by birth, a baby is well equipped to make sense of the world using touch. Simply stroking a new-born’s palm results in baby closing their fist in a gesture known as the “grasp reflex”. It’s an important development milestone confirming how crucial touch is to humans and allows baby to manually grasp, touch and explore a range of objects over the coming weeks and month, fuelling brain developmental and learning. This tactile sensing allows the new-born to begin to connect and absorb information from the environment and that sensory skill continues throughout life.
This explain why the traditional wooden rattle is such a popular choice for new-borns. A wooden rattle offers baby chance to practice grasping and lifting, whilst the grain of the wood offers a natural tactile sensation against baby’s delicate skin. At around 3 – 4 months old, babies begin to use their mouth as an additional way to explore and sense the world through touch. Known as “mouthing”, putting objects into their mouth allows babies to understand the shape, texture, size and even taste of objects, as well as practice the movements needed to later bite and chew food. Parents are often worried about their child swallowing something or eating something toxic. For that reason, well-constructed wooden rattles, large blocks and other age appropriate toys can be a great way to help baby meet their developmental needs whilst also remaining safe.
As infants continue to grow and develop, being able to crawl, toddle and walk offers endless sensory opportunities for touch and exploration of their environment. Children continue to touch, prod, poke, stroke, squeeze, push and pull anything that catches their eye in an attempt to better understand the world. Doing so fuels the rapid brain development in this first year of life. Holding and touching objects with hands and mouths allows children to gather a wealth of information and cues about objects and people around us. Is it soft or hard? Wet or dry? Cold or hot? Stable or unstable? How does Mum react when I grab this, or press that and squeeze this? It’s at this age that offering a range of well-chosen toys can support such exploration: simple wooden shape sorters, puzzles with graspable knobs to hold or stackable cups are popular choices as are wooden trucks with moving wheels or solid xylophones that can be bashed and banged! Durability and non-toxicity are key features to look for at this age, as toys can literally take a hammering by inquisitive minds hungry to learn.
And, as toddlers develop and grow into pre-schoolers, touch continues to be central to learning and development. More complicated sorting and matching activities can be great for stimulating curiosity and spatial awareness. Wooden jigsaws, now with greater complexity continue to meet the need for holding and touching whilst also encouraging observation and problem solving. And any activity that supports the development of fine motor skills, such as threading wooden beads or using a simple screwdriver as part of an age appropriate construction set can be a fantastic preparation for eventually learning to grasp and manipulate a pencil to write.
Touch and tactile learning opens up a whole world of opportunity for your child. With the right choice of environment and provision, you can equip your child to explore and learn through touch.