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Sensory Play for Toddlers

Helping Your Toddler Develop His Sense Of Touch

Developing your child's sense of touch may mean getting a little messy at times and thinking outside the playpen. While it's important to keep fragile items out of reach, experts say it's important to let toddlers satisfy their urge to touch and explore their surroundings.

Vivian Matos of Odessa, Fla., allows her 1-year-old daughter, Maria, and 3-year-old son, Adrian, to help her cook, which is a good activity to help develop toddlers' sense of touch.

"If we cook rice, my son loves to dig his hands into the pot with the rice before it goes onto the stove and touches and feels the grains of rice," says Matos. "If I am going to make scrambled eggs, he is the one who gets the eggs from the refrigerator. He's the one who cracks them and puts them into the bowl and stirs them for me."

Sandi Dexter, author of Joyful Play With Toddlers: Recipes For Fun With Odds and Ends (Parenting Press, 1995), says some parents forget art is a sensory activity for toddlers. "They put their hands in it, and they spread it all over their bodies," says Dexter. "It's important for them to really get into it. One of the things I encourage parents to do at home, after they have run their dishwasher and emptied it, is put the door down, put a mat down on the floor and let your toddler do water activities. Give them measuring spoons, cups and funnels. It's a great place for them to be able to do that. The dishwasher door becomes a little desk for them."

Tickle, Squeeze, Stretch

In addition to art and water play, try balancing your toddler on a therapy or exercise ball. Hold his legs and send him forward, back and side-to-side. Also, buy a length of spandex, the material used for swimming suits, and sew it up to make a tube for your toddler.

"They love the feeling of resistance with that," Dexter says. "It helps them understand where their body is in space. You pull it up to their neck. You can have them push their elbows out or knees up or roll in them. That's fun."

Ann Green Gilbert of Seattle, Wash., founder of The Creative Dance Center, says parents can find creative ways of engaging toddlers in sensory games by singing rhymes, playing patty cake, tickling, massaging or pretending to be the "squeeze bug."

Gilbert also favors the use of spandex material. She suggests grabbing a partner and making a hammock out of a piece of spandex to bounce and swing your toddler. "That material really pushes against the skin," she says. "You can do that with a sheet, too, but the quality of the spandex really molds to the body and presses the child's body and feels very good. Children love that."

Gilbert says our sedentary culture works against children, who are trying to develop their sense of touch. "We are developing our senses actually in the womb," Gilbert says. "You should not wait for a certain age. You should be doing these kinds of activities with your baby. If you wait too long there is going to be significant gaps in the sensory-motor system."

She says the sensory-motor system is the foundation for all learning. "It's extremely important to be holding your toddlers, moving with them, working with different touches and rhythms," Gilbert says. "The most important thing would be movement and dance, even in the womb. Babies aren't getting enough movement in the womb."

After they are born, many infants and toddlers spend too much time sitting in car seats instead of playing on their tummies, according to Gilbert. Parents should look for signs their child has not developed his sense of touch, such as odd walking movements. Infants and toddlers need to engage in creeping and crawling to develop their sense of touch, she says.

"You may see children who have what we call boundary issues because they have not had enough touch and so they have to push against kids and push against objects to find where the edges of their bodies are," Gilbert says. "It seems really odd because this should happen naturally, but there is a lot of environmental issues coming up now and one of them is too much time in a car seat. Another problem is too much time on their backs."

Playful Exercises

Matos says she likes to read her daughter feel-and-touch books. She also gets her children involved in her scrapbooking hobby. "He loves cutting paper and looking at pictures," she says. "We do a lot with glue, pasting stuff down and decorating pages. I have the scissors with the different shapes. He likes to cut and then feel around for the different shapes of them."

To help her daughter learn proper touching boundaries, Matos shows her how to pat her older brother lightly instead of engaging in rough play.

Gilbert says parents may expose their children to different types of touch by getting them out in nature to walk through sand and touch rocks and stones and leaves. She recommends using different textures and playing with scarves, foam and different materials.

Finally, let your child go barefoot. Encourage your toddler to walk around in the sand, the grass or on bare floors, not just carpet. "The feet have thousands of nerves that go right to the brain," Gilbert says. "Get the shoes and socks off and, in a safe environment, let them feel with their feet. That's as important as the hands."

From creating arts and crafts to helping you cook in the kitchen, toddlers will rarely say "no" to anything involving their sense of touch. Prepare for messes in the home or allow your toddler to play supervised outside where Mother Nature has a cornucopia of textures to feel.

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