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The Power of Touch


Tuesday 02 October 2018

Touch is powerful. For most of us, a hug or pat on the shoulder from a partner, friend, or colleague can work wonders when we feel down or upset. It won’t solve the problem or make the hurt go away, but it shows us someone is there, someone cares, and the world doesn’t seem quite so bad. It is the same for children. We all need that feeling, especially young children. Children don’t yet have the life experience to realise that the pain of a grazed knee or the feeling of distress when someone takes away the toy they’ve been playing with will pass.

However, sometimes we hear of adults who work with children being reluctant or afraid to touch the children they care for. Why is this? Is it a fear that they may be seen as less professional if they are emotionally and physically connected to children, or is it an overzealous interpretation of child protection guidance? In my 2009 MA dissertation, What’s Love Got to Do with It, I explored some of these issues. I videoed educators and together we discussed the recorded interactions. I could see that ‘children were at their most comfortable when the adults seemed happy to be with them.’ However, we hear, anecdotally, of practitioners being discouraged from hugging children or having them sit on their knee for a story or chat. We hear of educators being unwilling to assist children with toileting as there is physical contact involved. This focus on minimising physical contact ignores the emotional impact this can have on children. Children First (2017) says that lack of comfort and love can be indicators of emotional abuse. It’s important that we remember to be fully present for children; emotionally as well as physically.

A young girl hugs her father

Aistear’s principle on relationships cites the importance of love and respect. It notes, ‘Children have a fundamental need to be with other people. They learn and develop through loving and nurturing relationships with adults and other children, and the quality of these interactions impacts on their learning and development.’ Caring touch is an essential part of love.

Dr. Jools Page uses the term ‘professional love’ to encourage those working with young children to connect to children in a more emotional way. In a 2015 Nursery World article, she writes, ‘Young children are spending many hours a day in early years settings in the company of professionals, who are doing their best to provide them with suitable attachment relationships as a requirement within the EYFS [Early Years Foundation Stage]. Why then might it be considered unprofessional for them to love the children in their care?’

In her book Essential Touch, Frances M. Carlson reminds us that ‘young children spend many hours in group settings and they cannot wait until they get home at night to get the message that they are cared for and valued.’ Caring, responsive interactions are needed for all children, especially young children, throughout the day. Carlson believes that touch is ‘absolutely required for physical and cognitive development.’

Of course, some children may not like too much physical contact, and that is OK. We need to be led by the child and remember that it is about meeting their needs. Imposing touch on children is not appropriate. However, we need them to know that they matter to us, we enjoy being with them, and that cuddles are available when needed!


Máire Corbett is an Early Childhood Specialist at Early Childhood Ireland. She trained in Montessori teaching and has completed an MA in Integrated Provision for Children and Families with the University of Leicester at Pen Green.

'Visiting member settings inspires me as I see the passion and energy educators put into providing great experiences for the children in their settings. I love seeing competent children at play!'

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