by Dr. Carmen Hering
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of school teachers about how to approach the new challenges they are encountering in the classroom. After a year and a half of online learning, children have returned to school eager, but not just for learning. Students are eager for a whole host of social and sensory experiences that they have been lacking. Preschool children are delighting in being together in groups, pressing close to their teachers and classmates. Elementary students create big puppy piles on the floor, and even teenagers are seeking close physical contact when able, usually through sports. Sometimes the play comes out in aggressive ways. But the overall teacher feedback was unanimous, students were starving for touch.
So, what is it about touch, and why is it so important for these children and teens? Our sense of touch is one of our foundational senses- it connects us to the physical world through sensing our own body. We bump up against things. We experience “here I am” and “here it is” simultaneously. No two physical objects can take up the same space. This provides a sense of orientation and security- we learn the boundaries of our body and the objects and beings around us. We learn where we are. Through this security we also develop a sense of belonging, a feeling of being at home in our bodies and in the world. We learn that our body belongs to us, and other people’s bodies belong to them. We also learn that these people, places, pets, trees belong to me, and that I also belong to them. Belonging is mutual.
There is another curious aspect about touch- we feel the outer world by feeling ourselves. The deeper we touch something, the deeper it presses into us. We really are sensing our own body when we touch, and we draw conclusions about the world of objects by how it imprints onto us. Isn’t that interesting? We learn about the world through learning about ourselves. We are at the center of our touch world.
This experience of reaching out, of wanting to know and connect through touch, belies the knowledge that we are separate. This feeling of physical separateness turns the world into a riddle. We can never get inside it. We can get so close, yet we always remain on the outside, a world apart. We have a longing to touch, to “know” a thing. We see this in infants and young children, who cannot suppress the urge to reach out and touch. Parents and caregivers gaze in reverie as a baby discovers its hands, its feet, your nose, the ball. Whereas for the toddler, “Don’t’ touch!” becomes the recurrent admonition, particularly in new and unfamiliar environments.
But the very fact that we are interested in the world and instinctively explore it through our body, through our sense of touch, demonstrates our longing to be united with it. This longing often leads us to the divine and a search for meaning and a return to wholeness. Many spiritual traditions describe this longing as an inherent need to re-connect- that somewhere, sometime, we were united with the world and only now find ourselves enclosed and separate in a physical shell. This is described in many creation stories, including the story of the Garden of Eden, where human beings were once united with God and nature but were then cast out and expelled from Paradise, separated from God by their desire for knowledge.
So, perhaps this explains why this need for touch never goes away. Even as we grow up and learn about the world, the objects of life, the people we love, we still need touch. We still need to “know”, to feel security and belonging. We still need to feel connection. There are a multitude of studies on the importance of touch, not only for childhood development but also for ongoing physical and mental health. The health care profession alone is testament to this fact through the variety of hands-on therapies it offers, such as massage, chiropractic, physical therapy, osteopathy, and somatic therapy, to name just a few.
A healthy sense of touch develops into important social capacities. Having interest in the world, concern for others and a desire to care for those in need are all linked to this foundational sense. This is one reason it is so important for teachers to cultivate a healthy touch sense in the classroom. This can be done through hands-on experiences with natural objects, plants and animals, through physical contact games, time in nature, and the gentle care shown in taking care of classroom materials. Healthy touch creates caring communities. We all know how healing it is to be tenderly touched and cared for when we are lonely, sad, injured or sick. Loving interest and caring concern cultivate healing and social health. Teachers and caregivers can support the touch sense not only through physical touch but also by providing a protective and caring gesture, loving presence, physical closeness and gentle firmness of attitude. For ourselves, we can create a protective shape to our evening routine, prepare ahead of time for the activities of the following day or week, and nurture our physical sense of touch by spending time in nature, crafting and gardening, wearing comfortable, natural fiber clothing and practicing good skin hygiene with skin brushing and natural body oils.
During this COVID pandemic, teachers were quick to point out that the students didn’t care about masking, they just wanted to touch and be touched. These students, like all of us, are longing for connection. Perhaps feeling connected is as close as we get to feeling whole. When we feel healthy touch, healthy connection, we feel secure. We feel safe. And out of this security, we may find the strength and courage to reach out to each other and our world with loving care and concern. This is a potent antidote for the forces of fear, anger and alienation that surround us. Our sense of touch leads us to encounter each other. It is a meeting place. Let us have courage to meet it with love.