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Research Group: Re-thinking touch

JABADAO research group 2001

Here's a fascinating little fact:  "Touch" is the longest single entry in the Oxford English Dictionary - fourteen columns. Twenty-two if you count 'touchable', 'touching' and ‘touchy'. That speaks of just how important it is in our lives. Of all the senses, touch is the one that most gives us our sense of reality. If we are out of touch … nothing goes well.


But it doesn’t have that stand-out status in the curriculum. 


In the Research Group discussion we noticed that it is touching with hands that is the main focus. Touching different textures, naming them, noticing and recognising the difference. And as ever, emphasising the words, the language that goes with it - “It’s sticky,” “It’s soft,” “It’s prickly …”


The EYFS also focuses on how we manipulate objects with our hands,’fine motor skills’. But alongside this vital skill our touch sense underpins much more that will greatly influence our physical development and especially how confident we can become in our physicality.


Long before hands get good at discrimination one touch from another, and making meaning from that, bodies need to get to know the feel of touch all over the body. We need to be able to manage the important function touch has in providing self protection alerts, by letting us know that something is in close proximity so that we can work out if it is a danger or not.


Only when these two things are well developed and integrated can a body feel safe and relaxed. Our Touch Sense is a huge part of the way we monitor and maintain our sense of self and our sense of safety. We need to feel right before we can do anything else. 


Look around any early years setting and you will see children busy building this  - rolling on the floor, leaning on and fiddling with the child beside them, wriggling and sliding etc. These body behaviours are often read as 'fidgety' or perhaps 'unable to sit still’, putting them in the negative. But may be they are entirely positive. These children may be showing us that they need more time to build their whole-bodied touch experience, the vital foundation for all their future development and learning.


Here's stories and thoughts from the Research Group conversations ...


There was one child in particular who I was aware of after he’d been in the movement corner. He was craving lots and lots of  jumping and rough and tumble play. I wondered if his touch sense needed support. So I did some ‘Pizza Massage’ with him. And he really, really loved it. I wasn’t sure how he was going to react - but he really, really loved it and  was so calm as a result. And it was quite a different side of him I saw. The Touch seemed very important.


We’re now trying to build up a unique sensory profile for each of our children - notice which touch experience they really respond to, which they don't. What calms them and what excites them. 



In our setting we have a little boy - a looked after child - he didn’t have a wonderful start to the world and we’ve noticed that he’s fascinated by water and will spend a really long time with the cold water just running on his hands ... with that sensation of the water just falling on his hands. But at the same time he seems really quite unresponsive .. his hands can get quite cold, and he doesn't notice and we have to warm him up.  


Or he can tumble over and there’s no response like, O I think I’ve hurt myself. He won’t cry even though it looks as if he has hurt himself.


So doing the Touch module on The Feeling of Me made me think about this in relation to his Touch Sense; how he has to build up the awareness of sensation, his sense of touch in his body. This is a work in progress for him. And in order for him to build it up I guess we have to provide lots more of the same, so he can continue to keeping building the feel of cold, or whatever he is focusing on. That’s really interesting to me and it made me re-evaluate how best to go forward with his planning.


Catherine (JABADAO Team):

I love the way you describe that … the building up. Because it isn’t something that all children just get An accurate sense of touch doesn’t just arrive. It  takes time and it’s the layers of it that are important. We are supporting our children to gradually build those layers. 


Yes!  I don’t think it's something that I had actually given to a lot of thought to until now. I think we all just take it for granted that children are all just getting this sensory development … so it's really helpful to have some new ideas about how to go forward to support him.


I had a tray set up this week because we are doing the story Three Billy Goats Gruff - and we had a river, and the river on the tray was just blue tissue paper, and one of the children - I noticed that he just spent hours touching it. He was walking round the room just touching it constantly; feeling it. 


So I made him a tray with little bits of tissue paper for him to play with it. And he absolutely loved it. He was throwing the paper in the air, mixing it all with his hands. Taken up with the sense of touch. He really enjoyed that.


In the Research Group we have been challenging ourselves to see more of the development of the Touch Sense at work in the whole body  - not just hands; and to recognise more of what children’s bodies are telling us about their all round physical development.




Developmental Movement Play has always been a collaboration between the JABADAO Team and early years practitioners across the sector. So when we created the new online course - The Feeling of Me - recently, we created a research group to help us work out how to make it as useful as possible. The group took the course on-line and met with us on Zoom to talk about the different aspects.


We started with the Touch Sense - talking about its role in the current EYFS framework and what practitioners saw afresh after taking the Feeling of Me Touch modules.