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Tactile planks and tactile defensiveness

By physiotherapist Hannah Harboe

Tactile hypersensitivity is stressful for some children and can provoke tantrums and meltdowns. The clothing and socks that invariably irritate sensitive skin often transform cosy morning rituals into chaos and stress for the entire family.

At my clinic, I meet many families whose children find clothing and especially socks so irritating that positive starts to the day are few and far between. In extreme cases, hypersensitivity to clothing produces endless arguments, stress and even truancy or absenteeism from both job and institution.

One way to resolve the problem is to work selectively with the child’s tactile responses. Some exercises encourage the child to consciously register touch on their skin. Other exercises expose the child to an experience of controlling the extent to which the child pays attention to tactile stimulation.

To this end, you ask the child to walk barefoot in sand, grass, gravel or on wood, iron or plastic. You caress the child with brushes, a cuddly teddy, warm fingers, your nails or the back of your hand. The stimulation must have a fixed point, and the child must know how and when stimulation will end.


When we teach a child to use their sense of touch, we use equipment and materials that are both hard and soft, hot and cold, rough and smooth, dry and wet. Through play, we work with the child as they explores all kinds of surface textures. Which feels nice and which unpleasant? What is the difference? Do we like the same things or do you find something unpleasant that I actually like? When the child concentrates on how it feels, the sensory stimulation helps to raise the child’s tolerance threshold. This effectively reduces the stress of over-stimulation.

Gonge Build N’ Balance® Tactile Planks are designed with surfaces that provide different tactile stimuli. As the child senses the different stimuli beneath their feet, the child discovers that the surface also has an impact on motor skills efficiency. If the surface is unpleasant to the touch, the child will find it more difficult to move along the plank. On the other hand, if the surface is pleasant to walk on, the child will find it easier to keep balance and may even choose to remain standing on the plank and experiment to see what the child can achieve. Each plank and texture is clearly marked in different colours. The child soon learns to recognise individual planks, i.e. the ones they like to walk on and the ones that are more challenging.



Helena is 8 years old. She finds getting dressed in the mornings an enormous challenge. In particular, she hates socks and often removes them in a tantrum as soon as her parents have put them on her feet. She runs away, screaming and her behaviour is aggressive. Often the family ends up leaving the house late and the school run is stressful and plagued by conflict.

During consultations with me, Helena is a sweet, attentive child. She is conscientious and happy to experience mastery in motor skills play.

After a couple of consultations, she feels safe with me so we can get to grips with working on the things that stress her: Clothing and tactile stimulation. To this end, we plan what is to happen each morning. We plan how her parents will “wake up her feet”, clearly stimulating them in a positive way in preparation for wearing socks. Once the socks are on, Helena is distracted from the stimulation while she and Dad do a good morning dance in the lounge. After their good, distracting dance, Helena is no longer aware of her socks.

To raise Helena’s tactile stimulus threshold, we play games using Build N’ Balance® Tactile Planks. I encourage her to build a trail, with the planks she finds nice to touch first in line and the planks she likes least, last. Through play, I encourage Helena to walk along the planks in different ways and to verbalise how it feels to vary the ways in which she walks on the planks. The task gives Helena a sense of being in control that prevents over-stimulation. During the therapy sessions, I give Helena’s parents ideas for stimulating Helena and giving her tactile input in a positive, playful way.

After five consultations, Helena’s course of therapy is over. For Helena, sensing and challenging her motor skills through play and barefoot activities is now a regular daily pastime before the evening meal.

Family mornings are enjoyable with a regular schedule. Helena gets to school in good time so that there is plenty of time to kiss Mum and Dad goodbye.