I was the child combing through sea pools, stumbling over rocks with an upside-down castle bucket in one fist, sloshing saltwater, and a colourful net hooked over the adjacent shoulder. I plunged my hands after miniature krakens and holographic tails and struck limpets from their perch to reveal their soft, pearly innards. Gradually, I learnt that sharp, armoured bodies belong to crustaceans, while fish possess scales and gills, and gasp if you lift them out of the water. Unhappily, experience also taught me that no matter the seaweed and pebbles installed to make the bucket appear more ‘homely’, any catch held in captivity for very long finds its way to the surface, floating lifeless. By heart, I could reel-off lists of species, their preferred habitats and prey, not from a moment’s bookwork, but days immersed getting sandy, pincered, slimy and cold. In a word, touch.
Whip forward twelve years and picture a different child, this time hunkered over a laptop looking pasty and dejected during lesson four of six; he’d been tethered to this spot exactly as hopping between virtual classrooms requires only a swipe. School stipulated that ideally, students should sit in a quiet room with reliable Wi-Fi and separate from other family members. However, six-months deep in e-learning and the thought of enforcing increased isolation seemed cruel, so instead he sat at the kitchen table alongside his Mum- WFH (work from home) was already, by then, a universally comprehensible initialism. This is how I witnessed my little brother striving to learn during the intermittent COVID lockdowns between March 2020 and July 2021. More than once, a day of kitchen-table lessons ended with him weeping into the keyboard, unable to specify the precise cause of his upset, just asking ‘How much longer?’ Granted, it was a precarious time, during which proximity, let alone touch, were necessarily cautious and minimised. Skin contact had acquired a heightened set of stakes, of both fear and longing- dread of contamination, all the while yearning to re-establish bonds of friendship and kin with a hug.
Schools needed to close during the pandemic for the very reason that children are unashamed and voracious feelers- touch is so intrinsic to the process of reckoning with the world and relating to our fellow occupiers. It’s established that a hands-on approach- even more so for haptic and kinaesthetic learners, not only helps to consolidate cognitive lessons, moreover, the necessarily involved and unobstructed experience of being within touching distance serves to establish the foundation from which sprout empathy and thriving relationships. In her manifesto, Matters of Care, Maria Puig de le Bellacasa, describes haptic experience as ‘a way to access the lived and fleshy character of involved care relations… [it] holds promise against the primacy of detached vision, a promise of thinking and knowing that is ‘in touch’ with materiality, touched and touching.’ Of course, it is not always appropriate, and sometimes outright destructive, to touch, but it’s also impossible to touch without likewise being touched. Unlike the perspective of distance inherent with seeing, which might allow for indifference and detachment, touch-discovery is always an involved process. Even figuring out the nuances of when it is, or is not, acceptable to reach-out invites thought-patterns such as ‘how would I feel in their situation?’ and ‘would I like that done to me?’, thereby foregrounding empathy and consideration for the experience of another being.
Pandemic or no, skin is a craving organ, hence skin-hunger and touch-craving are recognised states of psychological distress. Our emotional equilibrium and sense of community hinge on being allowed to express and experience physical affection- research indicates that hugging floods the brain with a cocktail of hormones associated with positive feelings: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin. At the same time, tactile learning reinforces and enriches cognitive principles, helping to increase focus, especially for learners who may be dealing with a concentration deficit condition. Furthermore, involved and haptic experiences invite more space for intuition, creative interpretation and the primacy of emotion, as opposed to being handed pre-digested, closed packets of information to commit to memory cold, and without personalised context. However, in our post-pandemic world, in which we are increasingly deferring to technology to fill the gaps in disrupted schooling and many other aspects of our lives, the potential of touch is increasingly limited to the description of a technological interface: touchscreen.
Not without just reason, for many of us the idea of touch remains bound-up with notions of infection, transgression and imprudence. A good deal of the distancing protocols introduced to protect us while the virus surged remain in-situ for the sake of convenience and efficiency: video meetings and appointments, apps to order at restaurants, streamed performances and many facets of digitised learning, including uploading homework for auto-marking and pre-recorded lessons. It’s worth considering: what is lost between the gaps of our, apparently permanent, more contactless way of life? UNICEF’s Life in Lockdown Report concluded that ‘children in lower socio-economic settings or humanitarian settings experienced more depression and trouble adapting to online education’. Naturally, the ability to access emerging, ‘connective’ technologies is far from even across social groups, so, as students’ tech-literacy is set to become a major factor in their learning outcomes, the attainment gap between more and less privileged learners seems likely to increase.
If learning methodologies can be arranged on a spectrum from most to least sensory, Sweden’s concept of Skogsmulle, taken-up by I Ur Och Skur- literally, in ‘snowdrift and shower’ kindergartens, represents one of the most embodied iterations. Skogsmulle is an experimental, experiential approach to learning that foregrounds uninhibited immersion in nature, instilling children with a passion and empathy for ecological life. Quite literally, Skogsmulle learners are earthed in the living environment, which practitioners believe fully satisfies their thirst for knowledge, adventure and social cohesion, meanwhile, inviting children to reflect on how to live sustainably and compassionately within the great web of species. Skogsmulle is a specific program, focalised through four faerie characters who use song, play and sensory activities to engage learners, however, its principles have been applied to ‘forest-based’ learning initiatives around the world- testament to the burgeoning interest in beyond the classroom, hands-on approaches to learning. Moreover, studies have shown that learning within nature also occurs on a biological level: children who are frequently exposed to the germs in mud have more resilient immune systems and better gut health than their hyper-sanitised peers.
Humans thrive off touch; a world deprived of it is partially blind, like only seeing in a fraction of the rainbow. Feeling is so much more than texture, temperature or neutral contact between two membranes- our bodies are masterful at intuiting the countless shades of meaning wrapped in an exchange of gestures. Hence, loneliness is fast becoming a rooted and destructive endemic across all age groups, despite social media’s promises of disembodied connection, our interpersonal relationships are haemorrhaging. Within the classroom, sensory activities are proven to aid and engage all learners, but a touch-attentive curriculum is especially vital to serve the requirements of those on the spectrum of learning needs. As iPads reign supreme, reaching out, in the real, haptic realm is an increasingly radical act that must be reclaimed. Therefore, squash the dough with your knuckles, gather dirt beneath your nails and paint with your fingertips- live embodied. Skin is a teaching organ. Mud can be scrubbed off and cold fingers reheated by a mug of something warm, but we risk diminishing the vibrancy of human experience by retreating from the haptic into isolated cells of LED and glass.