Sensory Processing: The Tactile System

Categories: Sensory | Sensory Series

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.


  1. Hello,

    Thank you very much for your expertise! I am an inclusion teacher of special education in 2nd, 3rd, and 8th grade classrooms. Can you offer any suggestions for the tactile needs for children who keep their fingers (usually index and middle, not thumb) in their mouths if they are not using their hands for other activities? I have tried LEGO-looking pencil toppers which appealed to one child, but he no longer uses it. He chews on his finger nails and sucks in his fingers, also peels the tape off signs in his desk, the latter isn’t so concerning, but the finger sucking (and nose-picking) are more of a priority for him socially. I also wanted to ask about leaning the upper body and even at times the head in the desk as a default position, I was thinking of bringing in a pogo stick at recess as a fun way for kids to develop more core strength and ultimately help with their posture, do you think that’s a good idea?

  2. Hi! I’m sorry I can’t give specific advice for specific students, but here are some resources you may find helpful:

    Sensory Processing: The Basics
    Sensory Processing: Challenges and Red Flags
    Sensory Processing: The Proprioceptive System
    Sensory Processing: The Vestibular System

    I link to a TON of resources in those first two posts that you can read to help understand some of the issues more in depth. My posts on the proprioceptive and vestibular system may also help. I will be doing a post on the oral system soon! Again, these are just general ideas – I would encourage you to seek out your school OT for specific strategies for specific students. Thanks for reading!


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