Tactile Learning: How Your Child Learns through Touch and their Tactile System
This article is an introduction to your child’s tactile system and why tactile learning is important for your child. Future articles will discuss tactile dysfunction and what signs to watch for in your child. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
Few people can resist the touch of a newborn’s skin, or the silky surface of a rose petal. Our sense of touch opens the world to us and causes us to experience our environments more fully. It’s often ignored when we talk about senses, however, the sensation of touch is essential to our daily lives. Humans use this sense to gather information about our surroundings and as means to develop bonds between each other. However, when we think of touch, we usually don’t dwell on the importance of this sense. Touch is the central interface between our bodies and the outside world. When we feel something, we gather multiple informative cues about objects around us. Is it soft or hard? Wet or dry? Cold or hot? Stable or unstable? I am sure you’ve noticed that when you want to find out if something is smooth, you run your fingertips over the object. You instinctively use your fingertips instead of your elbow or even the palm of your hand. Why is that? Some areas on the body, such as your fingertips and lips, have a high density of specific nerve endings. These specific nerve endings that are found on fingertips and lips adhere to specialized cells called pacinian corpuscles (responsible for feeling vibration) and Meissner corpuscles (responsible for light touch). Fingertips are endowed with a high number of these nerves and are extremely sensitive to all tactile stimuli.
Tactile Learning is Important for Strong Childhood Development
Did you know that a baby’s first experience to the surrounding environment occurs through touch? The touch sense develops in utero (prenatal period) at around 16 weeks and continues to develop. This sense never turns off or takes a break. In fact, it continues to work after other senses fail in old age. Tactile learning and touch is essential for a child’s growth in physical abilities, cognitive and language skills, and even social and emotional development. Touch is not only imperative for short-term advancement with infancy and early childhood sensory experiences, but for long-term development within the child. Long-term effects of touch vary from educational results to social and emotional growth. In Hatfield’s research, Touch and Human Sexuality, he describes that affectionate, positive touch is associated with enhanced learning, language processing, improved problem solving and increased physical recovery speeds in children and adults. Further research in the book, Touch, discusses that positive effects of affectionate touch include decreased stressed in individuals, physical growth in children, less cardiovascular disease in adults, and a decrease in pain experienced by those suffering from certain illnesses.
Many children learn through tactile experiences, especially when they are young. If a child struggles to learn through their auditory or with their visual system, they may use their tactile experiences to develop other learning skills. For instance, if a child needs tactile objects or items to prevent fidgeting in the classroom, they may enjoy a weighted lap pad or a stress ball to calm their body for focus and attention in the classroom. Children who also prefer touch tend to like building, moving and drawing, which are all areas first developed in the corpus callosum (lower areas of the brain). This is why many toddlers and kindergartners first learn through coloring, painting, drawing, movement and tactile objects so they can eventually transition their learning to the left side of their brain for enhanced language skills, critical thinking, problem solving, reading and writing.
It also may be the reason why music is tied to your child’s math ability. Using your hands to play an instrument, for example, the piano, builds connections in the brain for better mathematic reasoning. As children learn through their tactile senses and movement, it becomes essential for intellectual growth. Children that are more exposed to tactile learning, tummy time, and developing their motor skills when they are young, have better learning development, which correlates with their future academic success.
Susan Goldin-Meadow at the University of Chicago says, “Encouraging kids to use their hands brings out unsaid, and often correct ideas, which then makes them more open to instruction and more likely to learn.”
Learning through Touch
There are many ways children can learn through touch. If one of your child’s learning styles is through their tactile system, you may notice that they enjoy or do some of the following:
- Hands-on activities that involve art projects, nature, acting
- Often taps their pencil, moves their feet, holds an object while studying
- Uses fingers to trace letters, numbers and shapes for spelling and reading
- Needs movement and constant breaks from their desk
How We Process Touch
Our sense of touch is not fully developed at birth. The discriminating aspects of touch, such as temperature and location of touch are still emerging. In What’s Going On In There, it describes that based on the development of infants somatosensory system, this portion of the Central Nervous System (CNS) is responsible for the sense of touch babies feel at birth and it is one of the more developed senses, even more so then what they see, hear or taste. Also, based on what researchers know about how the somatosensory system develops, an infant’s early experiences at touching and being touched are incredibly important. How the child processes touch is both fascinating and complex. Tactile sensory information enters the nervous system from every single part of the body. The human brain has evolved to house two distinct neural pathways for processing touch information.
Neural pathways serve as roads where tactile messages travel from the brain to the body. These neural pathways of the brain include the following:
- The first pathway is a sensory pathway. This is where the messages and information is sent that describes the facts of touch (for example, location, vibration, pressure and temperature). Part of this sensory pathway is a brain region called the somatosensory cortex. In Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, Linden says this cortex “basically analyzes information through a series of processing stages that extract more and more complicated information. It’s all about figuring out the facts, and it uses sequential stages of processing to gradually build up tactile images and perform the recognition of objects.”
- The second pathway is an emotional and social connection. This pathway activates brain regions that are associated with pleasure and pain, social bonding and emotions. It processes the tactile information by determining the emotional meaning behind the touch and determines social implications and bonding situations using different sensors on the skin.
There is more than just the physical aspect of Touch
The second tactile sensory pathway in the brain is focused on the social and emotional meaning behind each touch. As we all know too well, the physical reaction from a touch can actually differ from the emotions behind it. Touch and emotion are clearly connected. The brush of a hand or a touch on an arm can evoke excitement, comfort, repulsion or even fear. In Why Being Touched Can Inflame Emotions, it examines a study that demonstrates why the primary somatosensory cortex (the first pathway that was discussed above) is also sensitive to the emotion behind the touch. Emotion and social meaning behind touch is so important that it shows up in both brain regions that processes tactile sensation. The primary somatosensory cortex, which was previously thought to evaluate the physical facts of touch (for example, pressure and location), is actually receptive to social meaning of the initial touch sensation. The results indicated that emotional perceptions associated with touch could alter our perception of physical sensation.
Lack of Touch
There is a great deal of evidence strongly linking a lack of affectionate touch to depression, problems with memory, violent tendencies, and illness. When we take a look at this information, we have to ask, how does something as simple as touch affect us so broadly? One possibility that has to do with the relationship between touch and parent bonding is called the Attachment Theory. If a child does not receive an adequate amount of positive touch because his or her parents tend to be emotionally neglectful, then the child does not form a bond with the caregivers. This bond is important because it serves as the first emotional connection for the child, as well as a physical and mental connection. This lack of bonding will cause mistrust and negative feelings for the child. When the child matures, it can turn into emotional instability and can prevent your child from relating to other people. Lack of touch in children can cause severe stress not only throughout the child’s developmental years, but also into adulthood.
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