Tactile avenues to calm

Tanya Kemp

The tactile system involves the input we receive through our skin – from head to toe – so it clearly is a major sensory system. It gives us information needed for visual perception, motor planning, body-awareness and also for academic learning, emotional security and social skills. Having an ‘out of whack’ tactile system has far reaching impact on our children’s learning and development, as well as their level of self-regulation. Using the tactile sensory system as an avenue to calm, especially when combined with proprioception and vestibular input, is very powerful. 

I would again, follow the lead from your OT in terms of understanding your child’s preferences and aversions, and follow their lead in what to introduce in play at home, ad what to suggest as regulation strategies at school. Most of our kids have difficulties in this area. A great resource is Carol Stock Kranowitz’s book, The Out of Sync Child. Many of my recommendations in this letter, come from Carol’s work. 

The way for the tactical system to be developed and integrated is best achieved through Messy Play. Although… messy play is often hard for some of our kids….not to mention hard on the parents!!

My hope is that you can include a degree of messy play in your day and in some way combine it with your child’s learning goals! I will give some suggestions for tactile stimulation as a regulatory tool at school as well

I should add that not all tactile integration work needs to be THAT messy. We have other tools at our disposal too and we make adaptations for children whow are tactile defensive…but in saying that, messy play (and a movement towards it) trumps most!

  1. Use alternatives to paint, for children to explore in a tactile way:
  1. Shaving cream
  2. Hand lotion
  3. Mud
  4. Sand – wet or dry…
  5. Food – apple sauce, custard, dry foods, spaghetti

  1. Be creative and allow your kids the freedom to be creative using these materials. Play outside or work in trays on a protective cover if you have to do this indoors. Let the children explore the materials with their hands, polish fingernails with it, rub it over their bodies, draw or write in it, or create creative set-ups. 
  1. Toy cars can be squirted with shaving cream (car wash), bring blocks, sticks or balls or other toys on board to build a car wash, streets, highways with ramps,  within the tray of shaving foam
  2. Write words or math in the apple sauce or hand lotion, draw a figure for your child to imitate or vice versa
  3. Emotional learning expressing feelings – calm, anger, boredom etc
  4. Set up a beach setting in sand – a picnic, camp setting, water for sea with sea creatures, boats etc. 
  5. Draw, make shapes, write with spaghetti – let it dry and paint the designs
  6. Have a ‘slurp party’. Set the kids up on a blanket outside and present them with a number of different favourites of messy food – spaghetti, pudding, applesauce, cake, ice cream – served without utensils. See what solutions your kids may come up with on how to eat – with or without hands ☺

  1. Some kids may not want to touch the above materials – offer a stick, straw or pretzel rod for edible materials. If he/she is still too uncomfortable try finger paint (or other materials in a zip log bag to begin to introduce materials and always respect your child’s limits! You could also try playing with dry foods – lentils, beans, dry pasta. Hiding small items within the dry foods, pouring from and to various containers, setting up little imaginary play settings within the dry food – pretending it’s a beach as above for example or even walking barefoot in the materials in itself may be helpful to some. 

  1. Playdough, theraputty, thinking putty and kinetic sand, orbeez/waterbeads are great materials that can be used in a number of different ways. 
  1. Rolling, moulding, kneading, pounding, squeezing and poking playdough to make people and animals, or to make letters or shapes, develop tactile perception, proprioception, upper-body strength, fine motor skills and motor planning. This is often a very important adaptation when children resist writing.
  2. Squeeze playdough through a potato masher, garlic crusher, cut it with scissors and using it with other tools develops hand dexterity, visual motor skills and the ability to follow directions – or offers brilliant guiding opportunities!
  3. Hiding small items in theraputty for hide-and seek variations, writing and making shapes out of kinetic sand or manipulating orbeez with various sized tweezers etc all come with vast developmental benefits – from motor planning to self-regulation to fine motor control. All of that achieved without the child knowing he is being put through the paces!

  1. Playing dress up in various costumes, made of different textures with different kinds of accessories is not only a fun way to expand pretend play skills, but it promotes tactile perception, provides opportunities for fine motor development through buttons and zippers and frees a child to take on different roles and personalities.


  1. Tactile balls, rolling an exercise ball over your child’s back and wrapping him/her in latex free stretch bands are useful, mess-free ways of giving tactile input as well.

  1. Schools may experiment with children’s tactile avenues to calm by making tactile balls available as fidgets. Theraputty, playdough, slime and various foam toys can also be great additions to a fidget basket, or something kids can busy themselves with while waiting for transitions, in sensory rooms, or in quiet corners in the classroom. A sensory tent in the classroom can have tactile tools including stuffies, cozy blankets with various textures for kids to snuggle in when the world becomes too big and overwhelming for them. Having lycra swings, body socks, cocoon swings etc provides tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular input ad are great additions to sensory spaces/rooms. 

You will find a ton more activities in this domain if you go searching online, but I hope my suggestions will be a good starting point and keep you from going down the rabbit hole that can be the internet! 

Action Points

Where in your weekly schedule can you fit in some messy play – and how can you double up the benefit with learning goals (if you feel you want to)?

(Playdough, for example, is very regulating so using it before a challenge or during/as a break from an overstimulating activity could be really effective. Remember – some kids want to ‘move’ in order to think. Moulding/kneading playdough or something similar may be just what your child needs to solve a tricky math problem☺)

Thinking about your own children’s unique processing differences – which of the above points might work and are worth a try? EWhich may be useful to share with the school to help with up and down regulating?

Thinking of your child’s zone of competence – what may be one step beyond that edge?

Thinking of your own comfort zone – which of these may be one step beyond that edge and are worth a try?


Conversation Starter after a busy day: 

When and where do you feel most relaxed?

Game: Body Tracings

In keeping with the theme of the day – thinking about our sensory system from head to toe, here is a fun and meaningful connection game to try with your kids. It helps with self-awareness, and for children to process in a visual and concrete manner what they see and notice about each other.

You will need very large paper – roll of paper that can be rolled out on the floor. Have each child lie on the paper and trace their body outline. Now have kids colour and ‘decorate’ each other’s tracings, noting in the margins (or to you) why they are colouring or decorating as they are. My brother has brown eyes – not blue like mine. My sister has a big brain as she is good with math. My brother has a big heart, even though he gets mad at me sometimes. Encourage them to be candid but not critical and to spot similarities and differences between themselves and their siblings. 

The tracings could be added to the wall and added to as new discoveries are made. You could even keep the drawings and pull them out again in a year’s time to see how kids have grown and changed ☺


Living in such close proximity to each other, day in and day out is bound to bring up some ‘feelings’.

When was the last time someone got under your skin? Can you think of three reasons they may have acted the way they did that have nothing to do with you?