Well, I didn’t even know that such a term existed till I started working in a preschool in Holland. My work and experience led me to meet and understand child behaviour and psychology so closely.
When a child wants to avoid or doesn’t like messy play - feeling of sand between their toes, walking on grass, playing with goop or slime, rice play or finger painting, we say the child is being Tactile Defensive. They react as if they are having a pain response to this touch. Basically they are too sensitive to textures. Tactile defensiveness can make daily activities, such as taking a bath or sleeping or exercising frustrating.
A child and his avoidance of tactile experiences and lack of engagement in tactile play ultimately will limit his learning experience and development of gross and fine motor skills.
How to recognise if the child is tactile sensitive. Here are some common characteristics that can warn a parent -
- Child does not like the wet grass or sand on the feet.
- Aversion to loose clothing or snug feeling of clothes.
- Too picky an eater wherein the child does not like the hard and soft foods mixed.
- Has difficulty and blinks at the slightest amount of cold wind.
- Tags on the neck of clothes, buttons or zips are bothersome.
- Tickling is more painful than it is funny.
- Avoid any form of touch almost anywhere on the body – hugs, kisses, cuddles.
- Needs uniformity in everything.
- Sensitive to sounds – dripping water, vrooming of a car engine, birds chirping etc.
- Requests diaper changes immediately or very fussy after going in his or her diaper.
- Avoids big crowds or rooms full of people.
- Does not like the sensation of food on their mouth, arms or fingers.
- Child cannot calm self by sucking on a pacifier, looking at toys, or listening to mother’s voice.
- If the child has poor balance and easily bumps into things.
- If the child seems to be delayed in crawling, standing, walking or running.
Tips to introduce different textured environments like grass or sand or water (I have based the ideas on sand but you can change the texture with respect to the need of the child)
1. You may like to prepare hands and feet by massaging them with your hands or using a small toy that has a vibration.
2. A tapping or clapping game prior to sensory play with hands will also help prepare your child by helping to be aware of their arms and hands.
3. You can put gloves on hands and let the child feel the sand through it. This way hands stay clean but the child still understands and explores the texture of the material.
4. Instead of sand, use salt or sugar first on their hands as the texture is similar. Put some on her hand and ask her to feel it or run her fingers through it. Observe her reaction. If she is Ok with it, repeat it a few times in the week and gradually move towards introducing sand in the same fashion
5. Hide toys in the sugar or salt tray. First just place her favourite toy in it. In such a way that without touching the sand/sugar/salt, she can remove it and dust off her toy.
6. Then after a few days, submerge the toy gradually till the time it is completely submerged and she has to feel the granules and dig in to get her toy out.
7. Use food items like banana, jam, sauce and different textured items and apply in on the child’s hand. Observe the reaction. This way the child understands it is OK to have something on your hand or fingers.
8. Always assure and secure the child that he/she is doing a brave thing by trying and you are acknowledging that. Reward the child every-time for trying. This will encourage them to try harder the next time.
9. Make it fun by showing them you can draw pictures on sand using fingers or a stick, make sand castles etc. Using a stick or sand toys, the child doesn’t have to necessarily touch the sand every time.
10. Brushing on the arms and legs with a soft bristle or knobble sensory brush is a great way to get the blood flow and circulation.
11. The use of weighted blankets have greatly helped many children in these cases.
12. Separate textures during meals. It may help to avoid mixing foods together that have conflicting textures, such as mashed potatoes and gravy.
13. Introduce fun activities in a secured environment by finger painting with pudding, shaving cream or finger paints. You can also introduce this messy play with paints, foams, etc. in the tub where they can immediately wash off if bothered by it.
14. Gently massage your child and perform a towel rub down after a warm bath (firm, quick strokes).
15. Prepare your own PlayDoh or paints and involve the child in doing so.
Word of caution:
It is important to note that just because your child may have some of the symptoms it does not mean he or she necessarily has a sensory disorder. If you are concerned, talk to your paediatrician about the symptoms or ask to be referred to a specialist.
Also read: Toddler Fears: #2 Fear of Strangers
Explore the entire collection of articles: Toddler Behaviour