What is it About Touch?

from icanhascheezburger.com

The field of education, as a whole, makes a remarkable effort to appeal to everyone’s dominant senses.  Some of us learn best through hearing, some through reading, and some through direct experience.  Its the last group that really gets spoiled in environmental education.  Math teachers may give you “manipulatives” to putter about with when attempting to solve algebra problems or figure out angles in geometry, but if you’re talking sea turtles, an EE teacher would probably pass a carapace (ahem, a shell) around the room. 

How can you beat that?  In many ways, you can’t.  Using artifacts from species is the only way to get your point across for so many different animals.  Sea turtles are usually unavailable to students and teachers.  And there’s species that are simply too dangerous.  Like white sharks.  Can you imagine taking a class on a field trip to South Africa so that they can touch white sharks as they breach?  I’d love to see the fine print on those permission slips!

But then there’s the species that you can actively bring into the classroom.  Living, breathing, moving, calling (and often pooping) animals for kids to interact with through… touch. 

So what is it about touch that breaks down the last barriers in learning and gives us that (often indelible) impression of animals and wildlife.  Why are we so enamored with the concept of touching what we see?  Do we just not believe our eyes?  Or does the whole phenomenon go deeper? 

We’re a very social species, obviously.  Even when we do not maintain close family networks we still, almost always, live near and gravitate to places where many other humans are present.  As a rule people are very tactile.  And, as a rule in our society, one of the last barriers that people will break as they build relationships with one another is… touch. 

I find this so incredibly interesting.  Why is touch the last barrier?  What is it about invading someone’s personal space (that three foot perimeter zone) that both breaks barriers and tends to generate stronger social ties? 

And what is it about touch that makes it leave such lasting impressions in our minds long after other elements of the experience have faded?  Why is it that I can remember the first time I felt a stingray but can’t recall what species it was?  Why are people so interested in touching wildlife that they will break laws and put themselves in danger to touch wild manatees and dolphins and alligators?  What is it about touch? 

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One Comment to “What is it About Touch?”

  1. There might be a bit of a cultural bias in the perception that we need three feet.

    Also, this durvey seems somewhat related. It is looking at the role of technology-based intermediates in environmental education. Maybe there are some places where touch can be substituted?