A More Hands-On Approach

Screen time is just an arm’s reach away and let’s face it, kids are more likely to lounge around face-down in their tablet rather than engage with the objects around them. To be fair, we’ve all had our fair share of staring at a screen this past year.

Although technology is changing how we function from day to day, it’s still important that your child gets hands-on interaction with their environment. Not only does it build their fine motor skills, but it also shapes how they engage with people and their surroundings.

The Impact of Touch

Skin is our body’s largest organ, so our sense of touch plays a significant role in development. With receptors located on and under the skin, touch helps establish skills like emotional security, body awareness, language, and motor development.

As your baby becomes more aware of their surroundings, they will attempt to reach and grab for items nearby. As they start to manipulate these objects with their hands and mouth, their visual perception increases. With the help of their proprioceptive system, they start to build a database of information about their environment and how to engage with the people and things around them. They may adapt their arm position and shape of their hands according to what they are grabbing, and changing their approach depending weight, texture, or size. This is the foundation of fine motor skills.

The Haptic Life

The active and intentional physical touch and manipulation of objects is known as haptic perception. You can see this when your kid bangs their toys together, tosses them up in the air, stretches, crushes, or pulls things apart. Although it looks destructive (and sometimes can be), that is their little STEM brain at work.

Not only are they discovering what an object is (or isn’t) or what it can (or can’t do), but all that smashing/grabbing/tearing is building muscle strength and dexterity in their hands. The same strength and dexterity needed for learning refined motor skills later on, like using eating utensils, writing/drawing, and buttoning their clothes.

As your child ages, this wealth of information helps them identify objects by sight or touch alone.

From Hands to Mouth

Being “hands-on” has a direct influence on your child’s communication and social skills.

  • Studies have found that object manipulation, such as banging and squeezing objects, around 4 months of age is strongly correlated to vocabulary skills seen at 12 months.
  • Babies mouthing objects during the vocalization stages (6-11 months) has been linked to a greater variety of consonants.
  • Exploring, manipulating, and sharing objects promotes shared attention, necessary for learning, communication, and social skills.
  • Research found that toddlers will communicate with hand gestures influenced by the properties of an object they request, like a cup for water.
  • Research shows that babies regulate their volume based on the size of the object they are playing with. Talking loudly with big toys, versus softer with tiny ones.

“Don’t Touch That!”

Unfortunately, us parents may be limiting our kids without knowing when it comes to hands-on interaction. Think of the last time you told your kid not to make a mess with their toys because you just cleaned. Or when you handed them a tablet because they’re bored. Yes, we have all done this, but you may be doing them a disservice if it’s a frequent occurrence.

Limited haptic perception can hinder:

  • Handwriting speed and legibility (difficulties controlling the pencil while accurately forming letters)
  • Determining the appropriate force needed to hold an object to complete a task (clumsy when holding fragile items or accidentally breaking crayons when coloring with too much pressure)
  • Manual strength and dexterity needed to complete functional daily tasks, like putting on shoes and socks
  • Retrieving items without looking (stereognosis), like searching for their water bottle in their backpack
  • Independence to complete many functional activities on their own, like opening containers or buckling themselves in their car seat

So how can we encourage Haptic Perception and more hands-on interaction?

  • Unlimited exposure – The best way is to let them touch and explore various textures and objects (within reason) as much as possible. That’s as easy as being outside and feeling the grass to wringing out a wet washcloth and drying off with a towel. Think of all the different “feels”: soft, fuzzy, slimy, grainy, rough, wet, foamy, etc. This is where sensory bins and outdoor play can really play a role.
  • Don’t tell them what to do – Unless their lives are in danger, let them experiment and discover the components of objects on their own. One effective way to do this is during snack and meal times. Provide different textures for them to explore with their fingers (for example: banana, crackers, yogurt, diced chicken) and then eat. Yes, this will be messy but you give them a chance to tolerate messiness on their hands as well as increase their chances to try different types of food and meal preparation too.

If you haven’t seen the pattern yet, it’s that these small experiences and early skills provide the foundation for bigger, learned skills down the road. Exposure to lots of different things helps build your child’s brain and muscles, no matter how tiny or messy or inappropriate it might be to an adult.

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