The Texture Of Things

Therapy in Small Doses

September 24th, 2008

Recently, I took a peek at the search phrases that have led people to this blog, and one stood out to me. It regarded a small child’s aversion to the texture of sand. When I read it, I remembered a picture I have on my phone of the tot, playing happily in the sand pit at our local park for the first time. I recall the surge of happiness – sheer glee – I had that she was sitting in the sand and was happy. It was the month she turned two, and I had all but given up hope that she’d ever tolerate this activity that – it seemed – every other child in the world enjoyed and every other parent in the world took for granted. Ah, the relaxing moments sitting on a bench in the shade while the children scoop and dump and shape and smear and dig in the cool sand at the park. Would I ever get to be that parent? I wondered.

Seeing the search phrase popped me back to that time and I realized that I’m not sure I’ve fully appreciated the 30 minutes I can now sit while the tot plays in her sand cart this summer. How did we get here?

Whereas many parents can simply plunk their kid down in the sand pit and watch as the child seeks more information about this new tactile sensation, we did not enjoy such instantaneous success. Sand was just not appealing to her. Too gritty, perhaps? Too wobbly under her feet? Too unpredictable? I mean, this stuff gets everywhere! When I’d take her to the park’s sand pit, until that day in late June, she did not want to walk on it, touch it, play in it, explore it. No no no, no no no bad.

So, looking back, I have some observations about what worked to get her past that early aversion to sand.

First, she had had some positive experiences with sand the summer before. (Before this, her only exposure to sand was at the park.) We were driving to a friend’s cabin in another state, and along the way we stopped at a state park beach. The tot walked in the sand with her daddy and eventually sat in the sand and pawed through it to examine the occasional tiny shell. What was different about that sand? Several things come to mind:

* the beach sand had a much smoother feel to it (i.e., it was less gritty), due probably to smaller overall size of the grains
* the beach sand had a fairly even consistency, in that it was sand and a few small shells, unlike the sand at the park, which has lots of rocks, twigs, leaves, etc., in it
* the temperature of the beach sand was warm, but not hot, unlike the sand at the park, which is cool (and the tot did not like cold)
* we all felt relief to be out of the car – it was a looonng drive – so we were craving different sensory input
* the beach population was less dense than the park is, so we could easily have our own space and ignore other patrons and focus solely on our own experience (and the tot did/does sometimes get overwhelmed by throngs of people)

What I take away from this is that to have success introducing a texture-averse kid to sand is to back up and see the whole scene. What else could be raising the child’s anxiety about the situation? If you can control or change that variable, will the child be more open to the texture?

Second, the day the tot sat in the sand pit and had fun, I had lowered my expectations. I didn’t expect her to play in the sand for more than a few seconds, so I let her keep her socks and shoes on, in spite of the general dread I had about getting the sand off of her when it came time to leave. How much sand could it really be if she was going to hit the sand and immediately bail? Not much, right?

Ha ha ha – WRONG. (Given the success, that’s all right.)

I’m sure it was more than just one thing that led to success, but I can’t discount the possibility that having her feet and some of her legs covered made a difference. Instead of having to manage the sensory input from hands, arms, legs and feet, she only needed to focus on tactile input from the skin on her hands and arms. (And as I think about it, judging from the picture, I’ll bet it was not breezy that day, so that was one less tactile input she needed to cope with.)

What I take away from this is a question I should ask myself more often: what coping mechanisms can we offer to help the child manage on her/his own? If the child becomes overwhelmed by too much of a tactile experience, how can we block some of it in order to prevent the child from shutting down completely? In this case, the solution was – in part – to cover more of the body. Fine. If the tot wants to keep her shoes on in the sand box, I can live with that if the outcome is she plays happily and has a healthy experience. And what I’ve discovered in the last two years is that if I grant her the choice to keep shoes on or take them off in the sand, she will take them off once she’s had a chance to relax and get into what she’s doing. The shoes help her cope at the beginning, and when she no longer needs the shield, she will set it aside. Nowadays, it doesn’t take very long to get to this point.

At occupational therapy, the OT uses a similar coping strategy to get the tot to eat frozen g0gurts. The tot does want to lick it and play with it, but she does not want to hold something that cold. The strategy: wrap a napkin around it. Same thing goes for foods like string cheese. When the OT first offered her string cheese, the tot wanted to join the OT in playing with it, but she didn’t want to hold it. Fine. The OT wrapped a napkin around it, and the tot was no longer troubled by the feel of the cheese. Since then, she will pick the cheese right up without the napkin. (Tasting it is an entirely other matter, however.)

One key thing to remember about exposing a child to a challenging thing in small doses might be that we cannot always control the physical size of the dose; rather, it might be making the dose seem more manageable, or smaller. Time is one such constraint we can (often) control in this way. As in, “Hey, here’s a sand pit. Check it out. Oooh, sand. Okay, you’re done? Fine, we’ll move on to the slides and visit the sand later.” I find if I allow the tot this much control, she will return to it in time, more open to the sensory experience. On the other hand, although the exposure doesn’t last long, the overall desensitization takes a while because the exposures must take place across time.

So, even though the beach was not a small place, by any stretch of the imagination, the dose (challenge) was smaller there for the tot than at the local sand pit because certain variables like texture consistency, temperature, and spatial pressure did not push the tot’s tolerance as far as the park experiences had.

In case a parent of a sand-averse child happens to find this, there are two other points not related to dose size that I want to mention here. The first is the importance of lowered expectations and the second is the importance of role models.

I can’t say for certain that the day I let go of my desire for the tot to like playing in sand played any part in her moving through her issues, but it certainly made it easier for me. And a more relaxed mommy makes for a happier family. At least, in this house I think that’s true. But to let go of that desire I had to accept – truly, deep down, accept – that it’s okay for her to not like a sandbox. In fact, I often have to remind myself that not everyone likes everything. Some stuff she’s just not going to enjoy. Okay. That’s fine. I admit that many of my expectations for her are based solely on cultural expectations – like, all kids like pizza, or all kids fingerpaint. You know what? When it comes to kids, there is no “all.”

As for role models, I cannot ignore the positive influence our next-door neighbor children have had on the tot, particularly in the area of sand play. They have a sandbox in their yard, and the kids in that family are not at all bothered by messes, sand in every crevice, or things mixed in with the sand. They have acted as ambassadors, in a way, demonstrating how kids deal with and enjoy sand, even what to do when playing in the sand just isn’t fun anymore.

Would role models alone have made the difference for the tot? No, I don’t think so, just as I find certain advice for parents of picky eaters incomplete. Hey – you might be able to put a new food in front of your children ten or twelve times and find your children will try it and, if the heavens are smiling on you, decide they like it, but that is not my kid. And when I tell you I do it and it’s not enough for my kid – she just needs more exposures and sometimes that doesn’t even matter – don’t smile, nod, and tell me it’ll happen because a kid won’t starve herself, because that is statistically untrue. There are some kids – about 4% – who will starve themselves, however inadvertently. [scroll down past bullet list.]

In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. Expose, expose, expose. When something is so hard that she shuts down, contain the challenge and help the tot manage and cope, then let her do it herself and on her own terms. And measure the successes we have with a smile.

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