Today we are going to explore the tactile system, which is actually the largest sensory system! I will summarize and highlight information here in this post, but there is so much more to learn and explore when it comes to any of the sensory systems. Check out this post and this post for links to references you can explore if you want to learn even more! Let’s get started.

What is the tactile system?

The tactile system refers to our sense of touch. Tactile doesn’t just refer to our hands! The main way we perceive this input is through our skin, which has many receptors all over our bodies for all different kinds of sensations. The tactile system helps us understand important sensations such as pressure, texture, hot/cold and pain.

Why is it important?

Touch is very important for overall organization. It is the first system to develop in utero. Think about a newborn baby. What is one of the earliest ways we connect with our babies? Through skin to skin contact. Touch input from a young age provides comfort and security.

The tactile system helps us understand the world around us and feel secure exploring our environment. When a child’s tactile system is functioning properly, he feels comfortable and secure in his body. He has no difficulty getting dressed and wearing a variety of clothing. He is able to touch a variety of textures without issue. He isn’t worried or scared about what certain sensations may feel like. He is able to use two hands together to complete variety of important daily living skills.

What does it look like if a child is having difficulty with this sensory system?

Remember we all have our preferences – some of us like really hot showers, and some people hate wearing socks. But we have learned to adapt to our preferences. Children who are having difficulty with tactile processing have a hard time understanding the world around them and may need our help.  In general, we can overrespond, underrespond or seek sensory input. Check out this post for an overview of those terms.

Some children may underrespond to tactile input. They may not notice a messy face or may struggle with fine motor tasks. Some children may seek this input. These are the students who are constantly touching things! When you bring out the shaving cream to play with, these students rub it all over their arms. They always seem to be fidgeting with something. They love holding hands or hugs. They love exploring different textures and sensations.

Then, there are the children who overrespond to tactile input. The most common tactile system difficulty is often referred to as tactile defensiveness. They may have difficulty touching certain textures. They may have difficulty with hair washing/hair cutting, bathing, and issues with clothing texture. They may be picky eaters. Because this is such a common concern, I will dedicate an entire future post to this topic!

What are some ways we can develop the tactile system? 

The best way to help develop a healthy tactile system is to let kids engage in a wide variety of experiences from an early age. Here are some tips!

Let them get messy!

I know, I know. But seriously, getting messy/dirty is amazing to develop the tactile system. And not just messy hands! Everything! Let them feed themselves yogurt or spaghetti. When they are on the playground, let them dig and play in the dirt. Finger paint (Or foot paint!) Make slime. Cook!

Use sensory bins

Ah yes, everyone’s favorite! In early childhood, I know the sensory table is a staple. Vary the types of items you are putting in there. Rice, beans, pasta, sand, water, water beads – the ideas are endless. Put little toys, cups, or flash cards in there for added skill development!

Encourage gross motor play

Think about all the touch sensations on the playground – the rough feel of the rope ladder, the smooth slide, the bumpy texture of the tire swing, crawling through the tunnels – there are so many awesome opportunities. Remember that tactile input doesn’t just come through our hands, so encouraging gross motor activities is helpful for this system too.


Explore toys/books with different textures

Think about all the different textures and sensations that we can get from just our toys or books. There are books with tactile features like the touch and feel type books, blocks with interesting tactile features like bristle blocks, and of course everyone’s favorite- playdough. You can probably look around your classroom or home and find a ton of toys or books with interesting tactile features! Rotate them into your space to encourage exploration.

In summary, the tactile system is about much more than our hands. The tactile system helps us feel comfortable and secure interacting with the world around us. Engaging in a wide variety of experiences will help develop a healthy tactile system. Do you have any favorite tactile activities? Share them below!

Reference: Sensory Integration and the Child by Jean Ayres.  

*This post is for informational purposes only, please contact your occupational therapist for specific questions regarding your child/student.

Katie McKenna, MS, OTR/L
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