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  • Bearfoot OT

Feeling the World Through our Sense of Touch

Our tactile system, like all of our sensory systems, is truly amazing. We have receptors in our skin that send signals to the brain about various sensations, including: vibration, temperature, texture, pain, and more. It is the very first sensory system we develop in utero (Bremner & Spence, 2017), and it can provide us with both comfort and security - or it can trigger feelings of overwhelm and discomfort!

The tactile system helps us understand the world around us and explore our environment. Children show a curiosity for touch and interacting with the environment (yes, it can get messy!) and begin this exploration from a very young age.

child playing in a pile of leaves exploring their tactile system

Tactile Processing

Children who struggle to process tactile input might register certain sensations as threats, causing them to have difficulty with everyday routines and demands of their environment.

Your child may:

Become distressed with dirty hands

Dislike having their hair brushed or nails trimmed

Resist affection from others

Dislike certain clothing textures

On the other hand, some children might not be aware of tactile input unless it has a lot of intensity. For example, your child may:

Have no personal ‘bubble’ and accidentally invade others’ physical space

Put objects in their mouth frequently

Crave spicy or crunchy foods

Prefer rough and tumble play

We all have our certain sensory preferences! One person might like to build sand castles and be completely covered in sand, but hate it when their shirt gets wet. Remember last time when we talked about sensory modulation?

If you need a quick update, sensory modulation is how

two kids playing on the beach exploring tactile sensations of sand and water

our brain handles the sensory input we are receiving at any given time. Throughout our entire day we are exposed to so many different sensations, ALL the time and a lot of times all at once. Sensory modulation is our filter that works to relay what is safe and unsafe, what’s helpful or necessary input for the situation, and helps us to focus and attend to what is important.

Let’s Play Messy!

We want to encourage messy play and exploration for kiddos of all ages, while always taking into account their unique preferences and feelings. We say yes to the mess BUT we will never force a child to interact with tactile input that doesn’t feel safe for their body - this is SUPER important.

picture of a child's boots splashing in the stream

Does thinking about your kid getting messy make you squirm on the inside? That’s okay! Our blog post Why We Say “Yes” to Messy Play as Part of Outdoor Occupational Therapy has some more information on this, but to give you a quick rundown to get ready and embrace the mess:

  • Prepare your response — It’s alright for your brain to be saying, “Oh noooo! That’s a lot of mess” while your mouth celebrates with your kid saying, “Wow! It looks like you did some serious exploring.”

  • Clothing — Dress your child in clothes that can get dirty.

  • Remember the benefits — When you see that stain, *try and* remind yourself of all the development that comes with exploration.

  • Notice the joy — Instead of seeing the mess, think of the pure joy your child felt when covered in paint or shaving cream or mud. This is the stuff of great childhood memories

Regardless, messy play and exploring the world through our tactile system has huge benefits! By using their hands, kids are empowered through physical development and social-emotional development. Their confidence is increased, as there is no ‘one way’ to play messy.

Tactile Sensitivities

There are also many ways to explore tactile activities if there are some sensitivities to textures. Playing messy can (and likely WILL) look different to everyone!

  • Using tools to explore various textures - Paint brushes with paint, sticks in the mud or sand, plastic knives with Playdoh. This allows the child to have separation from the tactile play, helping them to feel safer and more in control.

  • Keep wipes nearby - If your child interacts with a tactile texture and then their body goes ‘ahhh!!!! ickkk!!!!!’, it is always great to keep something nearby that can quickly wipe the mess away. This works even better when we let our kiddos know ahead of time that they can wipe or wash their hands at any point in the play.

  • Never force kiddos to interact with something if they are not comfortable. Start slow, and explore various textures and sensory experiences they enjoy!

  • Explore tactile input together - if you are playing with Playdoh or kinetic sand WITH your kid, you can model your own responses and regulation as well as modeling exploration

picture of messy hands covered in paint

How Can I Encourage Exploration at Home?

Tactile activities and games are an important part of creating a sensory rich experience for your child. Tactile activities also work on finger awareness, attention to a task, and overall fine motor planning skills!

We LOVE messy outdoor play at Bearfoot. Here are some things you could try outside for tactile exploration:

  • Mud kitchen: bring measuring cups, muffin tins, sheet pans, etc!

  • Chalk paint

  • Building sand castles at the park or beach

  • Break the ice (see activity below!)

Tactile exploration can happen inside too:

  • Chewing on freeze pops

  • Creating sensory bins for unlimited play!

  • Whipped cream drawing!

  • Play doh cupcakes

  • Finger painting

  • Bath time - add toys, sponges, droppers, and buckets to make it a full body & fun experience!

Here is another fun idea to try at home that we’ve been doing in some of our outdoor OT sessions at Bearfoot and it has been an awesome heat wave activity!

Break the Ice

break the ice tactile processing activity

This activity works on:

  • Fine motor skills

  • Providing sensory input

  • Problem solving skills

  • Patience and resilience!


  • Containers to freeze water in and easily pop out the block of ice after frozen (ie. yogurt container, ice tray)

  • Plastic toys or toys that can sit in water and be frozen without getting ruined

  • Water

  • Freezer

Optional materials:

  • A bin to put the block of ice in, if playing indoors

  • Spray bottle

  • Dropper/pipette

  • Shaving cream/“snow” for additional sensory input


Put toys and water in a container. You can have multiple blocks of ice with 1-2 toys in it or one big block of ice with lots of toys in it.

  • The second option will take longer for your child to free all the toys (so consider your child’s frustration tolerance)

  • The deeper a toy is in the water when you freeze it, the more difficult it will be to get the toy out of the ice

  • To make this game easy: freeze the toys in shallow water

Freeze the water in the containers. If playing indoors use a large bin to put the block of ice in to catch the water as the block of ice melts. If playing outdoors, the block of ice can go on the floor

How to play: Set the scenario…

Oh no! Our toys accidentally froze their friends in an iceberg and we need your help to get them out! Have your child use tools (ie. hammer and pegs) and water (ie. dropper/pipette or spray bottle) to break and melt the ice to free the toys!


Bremner, A. J., & Spence, C. (2017). The Development of Tactile Perception. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 52, 227–268.

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