Respectful Touch; Why it’s Essential when caring for Your Child

Written by Chinyelu Kunz

/ in this article

01. The importance of nurturing a child’s senses, including touch and environmental interactions.

02. Exploring the four foundational senses and their role in a child’s development and sense of self.

03. The significance of using natural materials in clothing and toys to foster a child’s sense of touch

The journey to being born is a mystery but one thing is for certain, with the birth of a baby we are filled with awe and wonder.

Awe and wonder for new life on the earth. Perhaps this is the same awe and wonder that a young child experiences with each new encounter – like a stone, a flower, clouds, rain, or snow.

Our awe and wonder at new life completely envelopes us and we want nothing more than to hold, touch, smell, rock, and cradle them. Our senses are alive to their cry, their laughter, their smiles and their moods. We notice the littlest details of their hands, feet, eyes, and bodily movements. We notice everything about them with awe and wonder. 

Just as we interact with a baby or very young child with awe and wonder, they too take in the world with awe and wonder. Everything is new and mysterious.

In the book, Stepping into The Future: Early Childhood Education as a Foundation for a Healthy Life is a compilation of articles by different authors, it includes a wonderful article by Helmut von Kugelgen called The Laws of Childhood. I’m sharing a bit of it here to set the tone for going deeper into the relationship between the young child’s awe, wonder, and experience of the world.

Here’s how the article begins –

The small child’s whole body is a sense organ that’s open to any and every impression and the young child is extremely sensitive to his, or her immediate surroundings. A smile, an expression of love, or tender words, these are unequaled sources of warmth and strength for the young child. It stirs feelings that connect the child to their caregiver and to the environment. It nourishes their sense of well-being.

He goes on to say that “even colors and shapes and the arrangement of things in the young child’s environment, the positive thoughts of people in the surroundings, all these things shape and form children.

On the other side of all these positive qualities, which we want our child to experience, there’s anxiety, nervousness, and stressors that can lead to our outbursts of temper which is all a part of life but this doesn’t mean that we have to simply accept it.  We can choose to be conscious about our actions, both positive and negative. Our positive and negative actions shape and form our children emotionally and physically. Physically, because the impressions that young children are exposed to, penetrate right into the marrow of their bones and become part of their cellular development. Emotionally, because in parenting we greatly influence our child’s emotional health and how they feel about themselves.

The intention here is to develop our ability to become more conscious in parenting our children. It’s not asking that you be perfect, no one can. But when you are conscious you become more mindful of what you say and do. 

How a young child’s senses are nurtured tells them a lot about those that care for them and this translates to how they feel about their world. Is it safe? Is it welcoming? Is it kind? Does it scare me? Is it overwhelming? Does it make me cry? Do I feel lonely? Am I happy? Do I feel good in my body?

So many feelings a young child feels cannot yet be fully expressed with words as they don’t yet have the language to communicate so it is through their senses that they connect with the outside world and what their body experiences. What they experience exists as feelings that are memories that live in the body. These feelings literally become cellular memories.

This is why protection of the senses is essential. Young children absorb what they come into contact with through their senses – It’s also why nurturing a young child’s senses is vital to their well-being. Their growing body as well as their sense of safety is affected. 

An area of focus in Waldorf education in the early years is to strengthen the 4 foundational senses which are the Sense of Touch, Sense of Well-being, Sense of Movement and Sense of Balance. When it comes to nurturing the senses in early childhood this is where focusing on supporting the development of our child positively affects their development which we see in the later years.

The sense of touch, sense of well-being or life sense, the sense of movement and sense of balance unfold during the first 7 years of a child’s life, and are critical in developing the child’s sense of self. Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf education, spoke about the Foundational senses (also referred to as the lower or inner senses) as the young child’s ‘gateway’ to experiencing and understanding themselves and their world, and to developing a sense of others. 

For a baby and young child, touch that is loving, nurturing, gentle, and respectful is essential to them feeling safe. It is through touch that we communicate with a baby that all is well, that they will be cared for with gentleness. It is through touch that they learn to trust those who care for them and trust their world. Respectful touch is essential and deeply connected to a child’s ability to trust.

It’s also important to think about what your child comes into contact with daily – what they touch, hold, and play with. Do they have access to natural fibers – such as cotton, wool, and linen? Consider natural fibers when it comes to clothing or the blanket you cover them up with at night. And with your child’s toys, think of ways to provide them with more natural playthings that are made of wood, metal, paper, natural materials  – and less plastic. We can’t do everything, but it’s wonderful when you see what you can do for the benefit of your child.

Respectful touch is not only about the loving touch that you give your child it’s also about what your child touches. It’s about you being respectful of what your child comes into contact with. When you are mindful of what fabrics you dress your child in, you’re respectful of what touches their skin and how it makes them feel. When you are mindful of the toys that your child plays with, you’re respectful of their need to be in connection with materials that connect to the natural world – like cotton, wool, and wood. With this kind of attention and mindfulness, you nurture their sense of touch in developing a sensitivity towards materials that not only feel good but also nurture their sense of wellbeing.