Somato-Sensory System


Sensory discrimination refers to the process of discerning, organising and assigning meaning to qualities of specific sensory stimuli and experiences. Sensory input and discrimination are obtained through a child’s visual-, auditory-, touch-, movement- (vestibular), and muscle and joint receptors (proprioception). The discrimination and integration are necessary in order to develop and attain postural control and balance, gross- and fine motor coordination, eye-hand coordination, motor planning and visual perceptual skills.

Adequate processing of information from the somato-sensory system (tactile and proprioceptive systems) is vital for the manipulation of writing tools and the development of fine motor skills. Inadequate processing, on the other hand, will result in a poor body schema and insufficient motor planning. These two systems are closely linked thus activities developing these systems will be discussed as a unit.

Tactile discrimination is the ability to identify and localize information from the skin about the texture, shape and size of objects in the environment. Children who have difficulty with tactile discrimination may struggle to complete tasks when their vision is blocked and may seem out of touch with their hands. As a result they are unable to feel where their hands are. For example they may struggle to find a special toy inside a backpack, or struggle to put on gloves or feel out of touch with their hands when inside a hand puppet. Often they may have trouble holding and using tools such as pencils, a pair of scissors or cutlery and tend to push too hard or softly on a pencil or struggle to find objects hidden in a texture box for example a box full of beans or dry rice.

Proprioceptive discrimination is the ability to identify the position, force, direction, and movement of our own body parts in space. This information is received from the muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons of the body. Children who have insufficient proprioceptive discrimination may be accident-prone or clumsy as a result of their poor sense of body awareness, especially when vision is blocked. They may invade other’s personal space/body space and often lean, bump or crash against objects and people. In addition they may be heavy in their movements, e.g. slap feet when walking or land heavily when jumping.

Guidelines when engaging in this kind of play:

  • Play these games using vision as well as when vision is blocked/eliminated.

  • Move from pure tactile exploration and stimulation to tactile discrimination where the child is expected to identify/name the qualities of the objects without vision. For example, ask the child to explain the shape, size, contours, weight of the objects they are feeling (without vision).

  • As the child gains more skill, the activities can be graded from only a few objects to many objects, larger to smaller size objects and the type of texture that the objects are hidden in can be graded as well, for example hiding soft toys inside a ball pond (which may be easier) to hiding puzzle pieces in a box full of rice or dry beans.

Activities in the kitchen

  • Helping in the kitchen, exploring with a variety of kitchen tools in their hands e.g. the handling and usage of different tongs, tweezers, salad servers.

  • Making dough, kneading, rolling out, using cookie cutters.

  • Playing a guessing game with items from the fridge, where your child must identify the fruit or veggie using their hands and smell only (no vision).

  • Play tasting games with your children, where they must use their oral sense (mouth and taste-buds) only (again no vision) to discriminate between different types of pretzels or crackers. Place each one in their mouth while their eyes are closed and let them identify what it was. This can also be done with other food.

Activities for bathtime, grooming and bedtime

  • Hide bath toys under big bubbles or shaving foam in the bath and let your child guess what it is that they are feeling without looking. Playing with watertoys.

  • Play bubble blowing games in the bath, use interesting straws to blow bubbles in the bath water.

  • Use lotions, creams, baby oil or grapeseed oil to massage your child’s hands, feet, and/or body.

  • Draw shapes, numbers or letters on the back of your child’s hand or on his back. They must then guess what shape, number of letter they felt and if possible re-draw it again.

Activities in the car or when travelling

  • Make up a treasure bag for your child (a small pillow case works well). Hide a variety of objects/toys inside the bag. Your child must place his hand inside the bag, and guess what he feels before looking.

Activities for the waiting room

  • Choose items from your handbag, place it in your child’s hand (they must keep their eyes closed) and must guess what it could be, let them describe the properties of the item to you e.g. it feels smooth, it has a rectangular shape etc. before trying to name the object.

Outside Activities

  • Activities that offer muscle resistance (i.e. “heavy body work”):
    These activities will enhance the child’s proprioceptive system and body schema. Encourage children to do activities such as bike riding, climbing trees, swimming, horseback riding, rollerblading or participating in extra-murals such as karate, gymnastics or ballet.

  • Weighted and heavy equipment:
    Do activities with a lot of resistance though the use of weighted equipment (appropriate to your child’s age and weight) and heavy equipment. (e.g. heavy balls

  • Sand search:
    Encourage children to use their hands or toes to find objects hidden in the sand on the beach or in the sandpit at home and place them in a bucket.

  • Barefoot walk:
    Walk barefoot on a variety of surfaces e.g. grass, sand, shells, rocks, foam blocks, inflatable surfaces and chat about what it feels like.

  • Messy play:
    Play with wet textures such as shaving foam, gel-like substances or instant puddings and jelly. The child can try to find small beads or marbles in these textures with vision blocked. Visit out Pinterest site for many recipe’s and ideas of messy play games.

  • Messy copying games:
    Explore with wet textures such as colourful spaghetti (with food colouring). Build shapes and designs with one or 2 strands of spaghetti. Play copying games. Hide toys inside the spaghetti and ask the child to identify them, with vision blocked using their hands only.

  • Build a tactile obstacle course:
    This can be done using your recycling goods. Build a path in the garden where the children can crawl over (or balance on) a variety of textured material blocks, off cuts from different textured carpets, bubble wrap, egg cartons, terry cloth towels, sand paper, fur, chiffon, corrugate cardboard, blankets or inflated surfaces e.g. pool toys.

  • Crawling games:
    Crawl through different size objects, tunnels etc., or crawl through tunnels made from ribbed or mutton cloth or spandex material.

Please be advised that the activities suggested within this website are selected to develop and improve specific areas of developmental difficulty. Engaging in these activities only, cannot replace the valuable input and guidance an Occupational Therapist (OT) can provide you with.

In order to benefit optimally from these activities, it is best advised to do these activities with the guidance of your OT. Many parents and caregivers benefit from attending an activity demonstration consultation. Although the activities selected are games that children often play at home or at school, and are generally safe to engage in, the Therapists at this practice cannot be held liable for any injuries occurring while playing any of these games.

Children learn through Play and having fun!! Research has proven that children who have fun are more motivated to learn and have better retention of the learnt skill! Enjoy playing and learning with your child!

Contact Us