Touch and Immersive Mutuality

Similar to how perceptive vision can open learners to the deep patterns of our embedded connectivity, the sense of touch offers a bodied sensitivity to the context that sustains learners and life. Around eight weeks gestation, the human fetus experiences their first sensation of touch (Montagu, 1978). Touch receptors in the lips of a newborn allow them to suckle their first taste of nourishment from their mother. In this moment the simple touch of the mother’s warm skin provides her newborn with its first emotional bond and sensation of comfort. The first sense to develop, touch allows us to experience our surroundings in a way that is unlike any other sense (Ackerman, 1991).

Although touch is complemented by the use of the other senses, touch is unique in that it involves the entire body. Five types of touch receptors exist on the human body, four of which are scattered across the body’s largest organ, the skin.

Sensory receptors in the skin provide information to the brain about the size and shape of objects held in the hand. These receptors allow us to perceive whether objects appear hard or soft, smooth or rough in texture, heavy or light in weight, hot, cold or neutral in temperature and whether the overall sensation produces pain or pleasure. (Gardner, 2010, p. 1)

This complex system of receptors allows us to read our three-dimensional environment through a simple touch. Our skin becomes a vast field of information that helps us map out our surroundings, and enable the world to be our playground of textures (Ackerman, 1991).

This playground of textures we experience daily can enhance our sense of wonder and curiosity if we are attuned. Our sense of touch connects us with the world around us. It is the only sense that we cannot turn off at will. Touch is always there. Ingold (2011) emphasized in environmental perception how touch includes not only manual touch but our continuous gravitied touching of the earth or other surface with our pedestrian feet, carrying the weight of the body (p. 45) and serving as a vital connective interface of our embodied and continuous contact with earth. He suggests how “a more literally grounded approach to perception should help to restore touch to its proper place in the balance of the senses” (p. 45, emphasis as in original). Unlike other senses, we cannot shut it off to experience what it is like to have no touch. Touch is not only persisting but also inherently and persistently relational. Olsen (2009) states, “As we touch, we are touched. When we touch a tree, we also feel that tree’s bark touching us. In this way, touching connects us directly to place but also to ourselves” (pp. 63).

Touch can help us feel grounded when we interact with nature. According to Sachs, touching soil may even make us feel better:

A strain of bacterium in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety. And on top of that, this little bacterium has been found to improve cognitive function and possibly even treat cancer and other diseases (2011, para. 2).

Touching nature is an intimate way of interacting with our environment. It requires us to engage and respond to our stimulus and to measure the reaction of what we are touching. However, if we do not have the awareness of this small act, we take for granted that intimate moment and lose the opportunity for wonder.

Activities for Cultivating a Sense of Wonder Through Touch

Place Visit: Attention to Touch.

At your place, eyes closed: Begin touching–the bark of the trees, the soil, rocks. Remember that as you touch, you are being touched. Try touching with different parts of your body: your hand, the side of your face, your lips, bare feet, and your back. There are receptors for light touch, deep pressure, temperature, vibration, and pain in all parts of your body. Add vision to your experience of touch and movement; notice that the motor impulses to change attention are also movement (20 minutes). Write about your experience (10 minutes) (Olsen, 2009, p. 68).
Scavenger Hunt for Textures.

Activity adapted from Reimer (2013, para. 1-14).

Go on a scavenger hunt for various textures. Provide a list of textures to participants, send them out into nature with the list and see who can find the most. Possible textures might include:

  • Smooth
  • Rough
  • Hard
  • Soft
  • Fuzzy
  • Pokey (or prickly) (2013, para. 5)

After everyone has gathered their scavenger hunt items, spend time passing around the items and sharing observations about the texture and how it feels.


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