When a child is born, he or she has quite a job to do.

In the past few decades we have lost sight of this task, but we must work to develop respect for it again: the job of growing into the physical body. Though not often recognized by experts, it takes roughly seven years for the child to attain a physical body that is well developed and ready for learning in school.

We cannot support this physical development through educational videos, academic kindergartens, or computer games that teach children letters and numbers at an early age. In fact, early academic learning can often be a detriment to success in school, because something else has been bypassed-the neurodevelopmental stages of the first seven years.

Let’s consider house building. When we commence building a house, we do not start with the wiring, the wallpaper, the kitchen or the chimney. We start with the foundation because that is what everything else must rest upon in order for the house to stand… and so it is with our children. We must ensure that the foundation is there for all later learning to stand upon. If the foundation is not strong, then in grade school, high school, or beyond, unforeseen learning issues, including executive function problems, may arise.

Although most of us were taught in grade school that we have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, a paradigm I am bringing here is one described by Rudolf Steiner, the paradigm of the twelve senses. Years before the start of the Waldorf school movement in 1919 in Germany, Rudolf Steiner outlined ten, then twelve senses. While it is fascinating to understand how these twelve senses work as a whole, starting at the beginning will be helpful; from there one can see how the maturity of children, teens and adults is affected by early sensory experiences.

The first four of the twelve senses form a group known as the Foundational Senses for obvious reasons. Upon the strength or weakness of these four senses, the human being will meet the world with certainty and trust, or hesitation and fear.

These Foundational Senses build three capacities in a child:

  • Body Geography ~ knowing where the parts of your body are
  • Spatial Orientation ~ knowing where you are in space
  • Dominance ~ having an established preference for one side of the body to do tasks

These 3 capacities are basic in order for children to perform many practical activities in school and at home, from brushing teeth to writing words on a page.

These Foundational Senses, in order, are:

  1. The Sense of Touch
  2. The Life Sense
  3. The Sense of Self-Movement
  4. The Sense of Balance

Part One: The Sense of Touch


The sense of touch is already at work in utero-the growing fetus is able to sense contact with the placenta. Then, the onset of labor brings a strong impression of squeezing, pushing and meeting a boundary. If a vaginal birth follows at least several hours of labor, chances are that the newborn will have had a substantial experience of touch in the moments before birth.

If a child has experienced a fast birth (under 3 hours labor) or a caesarian birth, then it is likely that the sense of touch was not strong enough in this threshold experience. Fortunately, firm swaddling is a time honored tradition known by midwives and hospital nurses the world over to give the child the touch boundary she needs, whether she is being held or not.

Many cultures promote this practice for the first three months or more and for good reason-the firm pressure gives the infant a sense of safety. With NICU babies, they are wearing a little plastic diaper and maybe a onesie, so often there’s no firm swaddling unless they receive kangaroo care (skin to skin). These babies especially need months of very firm swaddling and baby massage once out of NICU. Pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp calls the first three months of life “the 4th trimester” and advocates very firm swaddling as seen in his videos.

Using the deep and also superficial layers of our skin, we learn where we end, and where something else in the world begins-a person, a blanket, a toy. We learn that we are separate from the world but through touch we also can connect to others. With loving touch, a child is comforted and feels sheltered and contained. Touch helps us to learn about boundaries and helps us to feel separate from the things we encounter.

Issues arise when the sense of touch has not received enough stimulation in infancy and the early years. Known as tactile defensiveness, a child may experience a light brush against the arm as a strong push, causing an overreaction. The adults are puzzled because they saw a light touch, yet to the child a great offence has occurred. This child may punch others as retaliation.

Hitting is a way to protect oneself, yet how often is it interpreted as aggressive or inappropriate behavior? A child may unconsciously refuse to stand in line where the risk of getting bumped by others is likely, yet a teacher may see this as defiance instead. Likewise, a child may resist sitting with his back against the back of a chair, especially if it’s hard plastic.

Some children with tactile sensitivity seek out firm touch by crashing into people or objects, stomping around, or jumping off furniture or steps. All of these help a child to get the proprioceptive feedback he needs-feeling where his body, muscles and joints are in relation to the world around him. Often these children crawl into bed with mom or dad in the night. They wake up and do not feel a boundary-“where am I? Where do I end and where does the world begin?” So snuggling next to an adult provides that missing boundary.

Another way a tactile issue may manifest is when children resist wearing layers of natural fibers, which are heavier than synthetic fibers, or they resist wearing snug clothing, preferring a loose style without anything touching at the waist, etc. Tactile defensive issues may not show up in the early years but can show up later in school.

Other indicators include not liking hugs from certain people, and a dislike of haircuts and crowds.

What can a parent do?

Children with a compromised sense of touch need firm pressure which can become part of a daily diet for several months. Children do outgrow this issue for the most part, and the best way to help them is to play games at home:

  • Rough house play with siblings and parents
  • Flying angels (parent on floor w/ legs raised up, child’s tummy on mom or dad’s feet
  • Snow angels on floor or outside
  • Wrapping in blankets/quilts-cocoon or burrito, firm pressure applied
  • Sandbox play
  • Being buried up to the neck in sand at beach if child can tolerate it, or just legs
  • Millet box “magic millet” –wonderful to scoop hands in to find hidden gems, etc.
  • Bear hugs
  • Being allowed to run and crash into a stack of cushions
  • Hand clap games
  • Rolling on the floor or grass
  • Sandwich the child between pillows/cushions and lean your weight on them –just not on the head.
  • Roll the child in a futon
  • Firm massage – especially to the back
  • For sleeping, put long pillows on either side of the child, or in a sleeping bag, and put the dog on the bed! Labs are great!
  • Hold gently but firmly
  • Connect the activity with firm boundary, safety and security, and have fun!
Next article ~ The Sense of Life

Connie Helms  works in private practice as an Extra Lesson teacher in Vermont with children, adolescents and adults at Balance in Childhood. She is a consultant to Waldorf schools in the U.S., mentors Waldorf remedial teachers and serves on the board of the Association for a Healing Education. Connie is the mother of three young adult children who attended Waldorf schools from nursery through grade eight. She can be reached by e-mail  at conniehelms@gmavt.net or telephone 802-660-0555.




Copyright 2011 The Wonder of Childhood

6 Responses to Strengthening the Foundational Senses and The Sense of Touch

  1. Kelly says:

    Thank you for this beautiful article, Connie! We loved having you at our school last winter. I hope you’re having a wonderful summertime.


  2. Beki says:

    Thank you Lisa for posting this article and making a reference to it on the yahoo group. I have been looking for someone just like Connie and appreciate you helping me find her. :)

  3. Alison says:

    This is such a helpful article! My daughter is seeing an OT for sensory things, but I learned a lot of different things we might do for fun at home with her.

    thank you,

  4. Liz Baring says:

    Your work has enriched my deeper understanding of the Twelve Senses and it is inspiring to see your therapeutic comments for parents. Liz ATR-BC, LCAT, LP

  5. […] places to start on both sites — Lisa Boisvert-Mackensie’s Celebrate the Rhythm of Life “The Foundational Senses” from The Wonder of Childhood online magazine Carrie Dendtler’s Parenting Passageway Next, here are some articles that local Waldorf […]

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