Sensory Play for All: TOUCH

There’s a scene from my favorite movie, Amelie, where she’s standing in a quaint little French street in front of a grocer. She pauses beside the produce stand and when no one’s paying any attention, she slowly sinks her hand into a bag of lentils. She closes her eyes as an expression of peace and delight washes over her face. In the midst of the streetscape bustle Amelie experiences calm and a temporary escape through this simple, tactile act.

The combination of soil and water is irresistible to just about any kid. Get out there and make some mud pies!

Tactile Sensory Play

As far as the senses go, touch is fundamental to understanding our surroundings and the activities of everyday life. Our largest organ, our skin, is responsible for our tactile experiences. Our skin is constantly receiving messages about our environment and communicating those messages to our brain to interpret the experience…and how we need to react to that experience. We’re alerted to danger (when our hand touches a hot stove burner…pull your hand away!). We feel comfort, calm, and safety (curled on the couch wrapped in a warm, fuzzy blanket…all is well and I can rest).

It stands to reason that the greater the variety of tactile experience during childhood, the greater the understanding the child will develop about their environment and more successfully they navigate that environment. Exploring touch is essential for all children, especially those with visual impairments. Whether you have a yard or an apartment balcony, you can easily maximize the tactile quality of your space for your kiddos. How do you do that? Look around you right now. What do you see in various textures? Where and how do you experience warmth, coolness, cold?  To add more tactile interest, think temperature and texture. How many ways can kids explore tactile qualities like:

Soft . Fuzzy . Smooth . Hard . Bumpy .

Prickly . Warm . Cool . Cold . Icy .

What else??

Momma’s helper planting flower seeds for our farm. So many tactile experiences here: seed starting soil (cool and wet), smooth trays, warmth of the spring sun…She contentedly filled 6 trays over the course of 25 minutes.

If you have kiddos that are hypersensitive or hyposensitive to touch, a space filled with a variety of textures and temperatures will help them explore this sense on their own terms and at their own pace to bring themselves towards sensory balance. Give them what they love! Be sure to include lots and lots of the textures they love so their time is as joy-filled as possible. If your child is drawn to soft, smooth textures, then add as many things with that texture as you can:

  • Plants: Lamb’s ears, dusty miller, magnolia leaves, oak leaves and acorns, willow leaves and twigs
  • Smooth river rocks (perhaps part of a loose parts kit)
  • A cozy space with outdoor cushion and pillows
  • Yarn bomb a tree trunk (if you haven’t Googled yarn bombing yet you’re missing out on some cool ideas!)
  • Nature loom (another fun Google or Pinterest search). Check out this post where I made a yarn/nature loom from two Plow and Hearth obelisks for our garden.
  • Ceramic pots
Lamb’s Ears is a low-growing, low-maintenance, drought-tolerant sensory delight. This perennial is a must for every sensory garden. My top pick: Helen von Stein lamb’s ears, also called Big Ears, because the leaves are much larger than other varieties.

Again, it doesn’t matter if you have a large yard or just a few square feet of outdoor space to work with you can still provide a hands-on children’s space with a wide range of tactile experiences. Here’s a list to get your mind a-thinkin’:

Water play. Water has perhaps the highest sensory and play value. It can be as simple as having access to a hose, or as complex as a water feature (though, take care with standing water and potential for drowning). Plus, water can be combined with sand and or soil for maximal delight. Water tables can be purchased or you can make one yourself, if you’re so inclined. An affordable option can be found on Amazon.

Sensory plantings. Lamb’s ears, ornamental grasses, the spiny cone heads of purple coneflower, paperbark maple, moss, creeping thyme, and many others.

Surfacing. Variations of ground plane surfaces (concrete, lawn, bark, dirt, etc.).

Sensory path. This is literally one of my favorite things to design and build! Keep your eye out for my blog post where I show you our sensory path construction…you can build one too!

Tactile panels by Sensory Plus in the UK.

Tactile panels. You can make tactile panels and affix them to posts in the garden area, or you can mount them to a fence or building wall. I haven’t come across a U.S. source to purchase these panels yet so I plan to figure out how to make them myself. When I do I’ll share my instructions!

Nature play features and structures. Think about the textural quality of materials for play features – examples include log climber, metal arbor, ceramic garden sculpture…sky’s the limit!

Loose parts. A loose parts kit contains a collection of natural materials like twigs, stones, branch slices, pine cones, acorns and anything else they can build with and use their imagination. You can put together your own loose parts kit with nearby natural materials. Etsy is also a great resource for materials that may be a little harder to come by in your particular locale.

Sensory bins. These are tubs filled with different materials. You can do different themes like “beach time” with sand, seashells, water, and other items. You can go Amelie-style and fill a bin with lentils…or go for a total body sensory experience fill a kiddie pool with lentils. This is a lot of lentils…I know it sounds a little crazy, but a little crazy is good sometimes. If your kiddo loves deep pressure this will provide beneficial sensory input. Worth a shot, eh?

Sensory bin idea from
Check out their great article for more ideas.

If this seems a little daunting, take little steps in this sensory-enrichment process. This does not need to be expensive…or complicated…or stressful. If you need to, start small. Keep it simple. Go for the low hanging fruit. Remember, anything you do will benefit your kids. They’ll feel loved and cared for. They’ll feel valued. Gold star for you!

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