By Ana Lefel
Tactile awareness and developing the sense of touch extends beyond a way of simply discovering and exploring a child’s environment. Growing this sensory awareness is a key component to foundational orientation and mobility skills, communication skills, and additional key areas of development (Ferrell, 2011).
Orientation and mobility relies upon a child’s understanding of his or her body parts, spatial awareness and concepts, and most importantly a willingness and ability to move from one place to another. One way that a child’s awareness of their body parts is increased is by being touched or massaged by another person. Trief and Shaw mention in Everyday Activities, “Gently massaging the child’s arms and hands may be helpful in making the child more aware of his or her body parts” (2009, p. 42). This tactile awareness also allows a child to have a better understanding of where they are within space. For example, a child can feel with her feet the texture of the grass and know that she is outside or can feel the softness of the carpet and know that she is in her family room or can feel the tile and know she is in the kitchen. Developing a child’s sense of touch also encourages her to explore her world more deeply by gaining a sense of the object’s shape, form, size and texture. Once a child is able to grasp and manually explore an object, Pogrund and Fazzi suggest increasing strength in the child’s fingers by, “encouraging the child to play with Playdough, squeeze clothespins, play the piano, and so forth” (2002, p. 170). Developing a child’s sense of touch and tactile awareness of the environment strengthens foundational orientation and mobility skills.
Communication is a second area that is significantly influenced by a child’s tactile skills. In Chapter 5, Ferrell (2011) discussed how a child’s language skills may by developed by taking the baby’s hands and placing them on the caregiver’s lips as the two babble to each other. According to Ferrell, “doing this will help her associate sounds with you [the caregiver], your lips and the sounds you are making” (2011, p. 153). As a child begins to touch new objects, the caregiver can provide words/names for them and give them meaning. As the child’s willingness to explore new objects increases, so too does her vocabulary and overall understanding of her environment including cause-and-effect ideas, concepts and generalizations. Finally, increasing a child’s tactile awareness can also serve to communicate a routine or event to the child—particularly if she is deaf or hard of hearing or if she has developmental delays that impact cognition. Ferrell provides the example of a child who, when she feels a plate given to her by her caregiver, is able to associate it with getting ready to eat (2011, p. 155). Another example of using an object to communicate an event is when a child feels the soft mittens placed on her hands and knows that she is getting ready to go outside. These familiar objects become a means of communication between the caregiver and child, allowing the child to identify and prepare for a routine or event that is about to take place.
Tactile awareness has additional benefits to the child beyond fostering strong orientation and mobility as well as communication skills. It can also serve as an important precursor for pre-braille skills. By having the child become accustomed to feeling various textures on the page of a book during story time, the child is learning how to become actively engaged in the reading process. It is equally important to encourage the child to touch as it is to be touched by her caregiver. By touching her child, the caregiver is able to soothe and comfort her when she is stressed or lacking stimulation, bond with her child, and as previously mentioned, increase the child’s body awareness. Lappin (2006) found that parents who massaged their premature infants while in the NICU, identified the activity as reciprocally pleasing to both the infant and themselves. This positively impacted their relationship with their child. Finally, encouraging tactile awareness can help encourage hand-to-mouth coordination. Ferrell used the example of putting pudding or jelly in the child’s hand as a way for the baby to be interested in its texture encouraging him to put it near his mouth. These hand-to-mouth activities are good practice for future activities including self-feeding, particularly with finger foods. (Ferrell, 2011).
Many children have a natural curiosity in what is happening in their environment. It is important for all parents, but particularly those of children with visual impairments, to encourage their child to touch and explore various textures, shapes, and objects as a way to develop orientation and mobility skills, communication skills as well as other key areas of development.
Ferrell, K.A. (2011). Reach out and teach: helping your child who is visually impaired learn and grow. 2nd ed. New York: AFB Press.
Lappin, G. (2006). Using infant massage following a mother’s unfavorable neonatal extensive care unit experiences: A case study. RE:view. Heldref Publications, 87-94.
Pogrund, R. & Fazzi, D. (2002). Early focus: working with young children who are blind or visually impaired and their families. 2nd ed. New York: AFB Press.
Trief, E. & Shaw, R. (2009). Everyday activities to promote visual efficiency: a handbook for working with young children with visual impairments. New York: AFB Press.