Under 2's

Learning Through Touch and the Inner Senses

In the concluding part of her exploration of the senses, Sue Gascoyne looks at the ways babies feel the world around them…

In my previous article I looked at sight and hearing. Now, in the final part of our sensory adventure for the under-twos, I’d like to turn my attention to touch and our lesser known inner senses.


Our skin is the sensory organ responsible for the sense of touch. Within the layers of skin five different types of receptors are located to detect pressure, heat, cold, pain and light touch. Touch receptors are located throughout the body, concentrated in the mouth and hands. No surprise, then, that babies and young children are driven to explore their world with their hands and mouth. Indeed, touch is one of the first senses to develop, even before birth.

What some may find surprising is just how sophisticated even young babies’ sense of touch is. During one research project 20 nine-day-old babies were given one of two types of pacifier to suck, one group a conventional teat, the other with nodules on the teat. None of the babies saw what they were sucking but when shown a large model of two dummies all of the babies fixated on the type of teat they were sucking. Even more amazing is the fact that these babies could feel but not see what they were sucking, and could see but not touch the model, and yet they were still able to match the two pieces of sensory information, merging data from different sensory channels – essential for functioning in a multisensory environment. With children spending more time in car seats and less time being touched, and with fewer chances to explore sensory-rich environments outdoors, it is vital that we provide ample exciting opportunities for babies to explore with their hands and bodies.

Inner Senses

Although responsible for so many of children’s major milestones, like sitting crawling and walking, the vital inner senses are largely neglected, something probably not helped by their wordy names!

● Proprioceptive: This provides the body with spatial awareness of where we are and where our body starts and finishes. Fidgeting is often a symptom of a child with poorly developed spatial awareness who constantly needs to move to gain feedback.

● Kinaesthetic: This provides information from the muscles about movement. Proprioceptive and kinaesthetic feedback on the terrain and muscle position enables us to move in a fluid manner unlike the most sophisticated robot.

● Vestibular: With our top heavy bodies, children have to master the art of balance if they are to be able to crawl, sit, walk or run.

● Baric: This guides children’s perception of weight.

● Thermic: This provides information about temperature.

Activity ideas

If you’d like to give your babies’ touch and inner senses a workout, here are some simple ideas to try.

Feely bags & treasure baskets
As most toys stimulate vision at the expense of our other senses, feely bags and activities, where children have the opportunity to experience a range of interesting textures, are great for developing a focus on touch. So too is a treasure basket (literally a basket of gorgeous natural and household objects) as it offers babies freedom to choose what to touch and experience a wide range of exciting textures and properties, as well as opportunities for developing fine and gross motor skills and balance.

Any activities that involve movement, being spun, rocked, building leg muscles and balance are brilliant for developing the inner senses, as is tummy time. Jiggling babies on laps during songs and rhymes and encouraging arm and leg actions that involve children crossing the mid line (the imaginary line running vertically head to toe) are also great.

Sensory stimulation
Offer a sensory smorgasbord of textures and experiences for babies to touch and crawl through. Try grass, sand, paint, gloop, shaving foam, water, wood shavings and a mix of velvety, silky or crinkly fabrics. Not only will these help develop the inner senses, they will also provide wonderful stimulation for your babies’ other senses, particularly touch, smell, sound and sight.

Sue Gascoyne is an early years researcher, educational consultant, trainer and the author of Treasure Baskets and Beyond – Realizing the Potential of Sensory-Rich Play.