Tactile defensive children may be fearful of messy activities like finger painting.

Tactile Defensive Activities for Children

by Stacey Chaloux

All children process sensory information in different ways. Some children are tactile defensive, which means they are overly sensitive to touch sensations. That can inhibit their ability to participate in certain activities that are important for their development. For example, they might be fearful of messy activities or bothered by certain textures on materials they touch. Caregivers can gradually introduce these sensory experiences to children who are tactile defensive through a variety of play activities.

Modeling clay

One good way to allow a tactile-defensive child to experience new sensory input is to introduce him to modeling clay. Children who are tactile defensive often will use only their fingertips to play with materials, so parents can encourage them to push their fingers into the clay at first. Parents should model other ways to interact with the clay, such as squishing, rolling or kneading it. Once the child feels more comfortable with the feel of the clay, guide him or her to use the whole hand to play with it.


Children who are tactile defensive do not enjoy getting their hands messy, so finger-painting will not be an activity they participate in without guidance. To introduce this material to the child, a parent could model putting their hands into the paint or allow the child to push the parent's hands into the paint. As the child becomes more comfortable, they can push other objects through the paint such as a toy car. Eventually they can place their fingers into the paint and work toward using the whole hand. A child who is fearful of the sensory experiences should never be forced to touch it, but gradually introducing the materials will help the child feel safer as they interact with it. Finger-painting can also be done with edible, more familiar materials, such as pudding or whipped cream to add another element of fun to the activity.

Sensory Box

A common childhood toy is a sandbox, but the feeling of sand can bother a child who is tactile defensive. A sensory box is one way to introduce them to this tactile experience. Parents can fill a large plastic container with sand or a variety of other materials such as beans, rice or popcorn. Parents can hide small toys in the box and allow the child to use their hands, a small shovel, or cup to dig through the materials and find the hidden objects. Children can also explore the materials with their hands, and once they are comfortable with touching them, parents can encourage them to try playing in a large sandbox in which more of their body will be touching the sand.

Deep Pressure Massage

Tactile defensive children will be more comfortable with deep pressure touch than a light one. Parents can give them this sensory input by using lotion and a firm touch to give the child a massage on their arms and legs. Children who are tactile defensive might also enjoy being covered with a weighted blanket to give the sensation of deep pressure.

About the Author

Stacey Chaloux is an educator who has taught in both regular and special education early childhood classrooms, as well as served as a parent educator, teaching parents how to be their child's best first teacher. She has a Bachelor of Science in education from the University of Missouri and a Master of Education from Graceland University.

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