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Sensory Development in a Touchless World

Editorial

8/6/2021 | Dr. Tamar Andrews

As the director of a large (350 children) childcare center where I historically would help nurture the physical bonds between teacher and student, I have been forced to redefine these bonds so they can adapt to a seemingly touchless new world. From an app that enables touchless sign-in and out protocols during drop-off and pickup, to the masks, gloves, and sanitizing we do throughout the day, our world feels like one where we are moving farther and farther apart from one another. 

Yet, the need to connect is greater than ever before. In his famous 1965 study with rhesus monkeys, Harry Harlow proved that touch is more important to primates than even food. Pre-Covid young preschoolers were taught to share, play together, were hugged, and made to feel loved and safe by their caregivers. How will our children fare in our new touchless world when science tells us that they need to be held close and touched?

Most children are born with the innate gifts of both resilience and adaptability. Resilience is the ability to bounce back and return to what was after overcoming a challenging obstacle. Adaptability is the way in which we can change to meet the new challenges we may face. It is important, therefore, that we offer up ways in which our caregivers can do the same.

The importance of touch, and of all sensory input during the early childhood years cannot be stressed enough. Children use their senses to explore and to try to make sense of the world around them. It also greatly enables the development of cognitive skills and supports self-regulation.

Children, as all humans do, have 8 senses:

  1. Vision which is their sight
  2. Tactile which is everything they touch or feel
  3. Gustatory which is everything they taste
  4. Auditory which is everything they hear
  5. Olfactory which is everything they smell
  6. Proprioception which is the sensations they feel from their joints and muscles and helps them know where their bodies are in space
  7. Vestibular which is the sense of movement through space and happens in the inner ear
  8. Interoception which is the awareness of the inside of the body such as hunger, fullness, hot, cold or needing to use the toilet

There are a variety of ways in which centers can continue to develop all sensory aspects of a child’s growth and development. Here are some tried and tested methods, but it’s a wide-open space where a director or teacher’s creativity is used to spark that of their students!

Sensory Tables:

These are essential components in a young child’s life where they normally would hear “don’t touch that!” outside of the childcare center. Instead, touch tables are where they’re empowered with multiple opportunities to touch and make sense of the materials around them. Instead of having one sensory table for the entire class, make individual sensory bins for each child. It can be identified by the child’s photo or name. 

Art:

Use materials that are easily sanitized such as plastic brushes instead of wood. Instead of using easels, children can have their own made out of cereal boxes or old game boards that are slightly folded.  Children can also paint with ice cubes or other materials outdoors.

Meals and snacks:

Although many childcare centers practiced “family style” meals and baking activities together, food and mealtimes are still a terrific way to have sensory learning take place. New foods, textures, and conversations during mealtimes ensure sensory learning is taking place. Children can also be engaged in conversations that allow interoception by checking with their bodies and letting teachers know how much to serve them or when to stop eating. 

Sensory learning with a distance:

Many of the games we already play with preschoolers incorporate social distancing.  Music and movement games can still continue as long as children remain at a distance from one another. 

Children need sensory input throughout the day to grow and develop appropriately. Ensuring that their days are still full of those sensory activities, albeit a bit differently than before, also ensures that they will be ready for future years of success in school, socially and emotionally.

Harlow H. F., Dodsworth R. O., & Harlow M. K. (1965). Total social isolation in monkeys. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC285801/pdf/pnas00159-0105.pdf

Dr. Tamar Andrews is a world-renowned parenting expert and professor of early childhood education. She is also the director of a large early childhood education center in Los Angeles, CA.

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