I wanted these explorations to be all about the beauty and science of skin and the many ways we can use our hands. Along with standard (and terrific) activities about touch and texture, this unit takes sideways steps into anatomy, the science of skin color, Braille, and sign language. (For more activities with humans’ talented hands, you might consult “Teach Kids About Sound and Vision” and do some hand clapping games.)
What Kids Will Do
In these explorations, kids might…
- participate in a variety of proprioception experiments
- learn to sign a song and discover unusual signs
- make fingerprint art
- play with a non-Newtonian fluid
- explore Braille
- make a sensory book
- melt colorful castles with ice
- explore chemical reactions with play dough
- make ice cream in a bag
- and more
(Designed for kids preschool-1st/2nd grade, though many materials and activities might be of interest to older children and adults, too.)
- This Book is Anti-Racist, Tiffany Jewell and Aurélia Durand [Amazon | Bookshop] — While this book is aimed at older children, but kindergarten+ children can understand the first few chapters in particular if an adult discusses it and elaborates on it with them. Recommended reading for grown-ups, too.
- Ed Emberley’s Complete FunPrint Drawing Book, Ed Emberley [Amazon | Bookshop] — Even quite young children can follow Emberley’s step-by-step instructions, and this book is filled with cute, accessible fingerprint art designs.
- DK Braille: Animals: Knowledge You Can Touch [Amazon | Bookshop] — I have used this book to explore Braille with children, but I imagine there are other good DK books featuring Braille, too. This one in particular is nice because in addition to Braille, many of the animals are textured or furred, so it’s a great way to talk about how you can tell the difference between the animals using only touch.
- My Very First Body Book, Matthew Oldham and Tony Neal [Amazon | Usborne] — I like these Usborne “My Very First” books because they cover so many basic facts and are written in a way that even 3- and 4-year-olds can understand. This one is of limited use in these explorations but is quite handy to have around for any preschool body discussions.
- Anatomy: A Cutaway Look Inside the Human Body, Hélène Druvert and Jean-Claude Druvert [Amazon] — A gorgeous anatomy book filled with delicate laser cuts, this book is fascinating and awe-inspiring but perhaps not to be left alone with the littlest hands. If you and your children like art books, this might be for you, but be aware that the text is geared more toward older readers.
Skin and Skin Color
Read: “The Hand” in Anatomy: A Cutaway Look Inside the Human Body, Helene Druvert and Jean-Claude Druvert
Skin’s 3 Functions: Protecting, Regulating, and Sensing
Watch: The Science of Skin
Why Do We Itch?
Read: This Book Is Anti-Racist: “Who Am I?” (10) and “What Is Race? What Is Ethnicity?” (24) [Amazon | Bookshop]
(You might also find useful the book All the Colors We Are, by Katie Kissinger and Chris Bohnhoff [Amazon | Bookshop].)
Sulwe, Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison [Amazon | Bookshop]
How Sensitive Is Our Skin, and Where Is It Most Sensitive?
Activity: 2-Point Discrimination
In this activity, kids compare how sensitive various parts of their bodies are. Using an unfolded paperclip with two points, have children close their eyes as you tap both points simultaneously on their skin. If they identify one point, bend the paper clips so the two points are farther apart and try again. When they identify two points touching their skin, measure the distance between the points and record the data. Try this on the palms, back of hands, feet, legs, arms… and then compare the results. Full instructions and a data chart here (along with far more advanced lesson plans for this activity, but the simplified version of this is great for preschool and elementary students).
Activity: Fingerprint art
Not only a fun art exercise, but also an opportunity to examine and talk about fingerprints. You can use your own imaginations just a stamp pad and paper, but we also love Ed Emberley’s Complete FunPrint Drawing Book [Amazon | Bookshop].
Smooth and Rough, Soft and Hard
Activity: What’s in the box? (Reach in and guess!)
A classic. You can do this with simple mixing bowls covered with tea towels. (No need to get fancy with special “mystery boxes.”) Have kids reach in and describe the sensations they’re feeling, as well as guess the contents, before you reveal what’s inside. (Some suggestions: water beads, cooked spaghetti and peeled grapes, a rough or spiky shell, cotton balls, rubber bands… but so much of the fun is in looking for surprising items, and kids will enjoy the turning the tables on you and finding things for you to guess.)
Activity: What things are in this bag?
I was inspired to do this activity after seeing a version of it on the brilliant British show Taskmaster (see the challenge here; I highly recommend the show if you enjoy lateral thinking, and many children will also like it if they see it, but as it’s a grown-up program it’s not always appropriate for the youngest viewers, so be aware of that). Sleeping bags will work for this if you have one, but I use drawstring muslin bags. Find a variety of objects to put inside the bags and have children manipulate the bags in any way they like, without reaching inside, to figure out the contents. They will probably find this very challenging. The next step is to let them reach inside the bags (without peeking) and guess the items again. They might do quite well with it this time! Discuss what the difference is between manipulating something with your hands and actually feeling it against your skin. (This activity pairs well with the “What’s in this box?” mystery game above for that very reason.)
Activity: Feel and order sandpaper samples from finest grit to roughest
Another great experiment to demonstrate the sensitivity of our fingers. Full instructions here.
Activity: Make a sensory book or picture
The idea here is to make a drawing or story drawing (or small book) with lots of different sensations — so pipe cleaner trees, sparkly foil water, bean rocks, and so on. Some ideas for supplies include dried lentils and beans, felt, foil, yarn, bubble wrap pieces, construction paper, cotton balls/pom poms, sandpaper, feathers, and materials from the garden.
Thermoreceptors: Hot and Cold
Activity: Desensitization and distinguishing hot from cold
This surprising and delightful activity asks children to plunge their hands into warm and cold buckets of water for a little while and then plunge them into other buckets with water of a different temperature. How does that feel and why? A wonderfully simple experiment that requires only water and vessels to hold it. Full instructions and explanations here.
Activity: Finger bath
A similar experiment, but this time using two fingers on the same hand. Get two cups of water, one warm and one cold, and place them side by side, right up against each other. Have children make the “peace” sign with the fingers of one hand and then stick one finger in each glass. The sensory signals run along the same nerve here, so what do the kids feel? Does one finger feel hot and the other cold? Or do they both feel the same? Is it a confusing sensation?
Activity: Ice caverns painting with salt
Freeze water into a big block of ice, then pour salt and food coloring on it. Watch the results and discuss the interaction between salt and ice. You can use a baking dish to make the block of ice, but you can also get very beautiful results with a sphere of ice (freezing a balloon filled with water). Full instructions here.
Activity: Make ice cream in a bag
It takes some work, but it’s truly delicious and will feel magical to children. This recipe is especially good. I recommend bagging the ice cream but then putting the bag, along with the ice, in a large jar, if you have one. Cover it with a tea towel so that your skin doesn’t get too cold, and then roll it back and forth vigorously for a long while. Eat it straight out the bag if you like! You can go here for a detailed overview of the science involved in this activity.
Activity: Ice castle excavation
A classic activity that can be used over and over: freeze something in ice and then have kids melt it with salt or spray bottles filled with warm water. I got castle inspiration from here and purchased this excellent silicone castle mold. You can freeze jewels in it, yes, but also it’s wonderful (and probably exciting for even older children and grown-ups) to leave it plain and use salt and food coloring to melt it.
Watch: Why the Heck Are We Ticklish?
Activity: Can we make ourselves less ticklish?
My own children suggested this activity. Is there anything we can do to make ourselves less ticklish? How about putting on thicker clothing? Applying an ice pack or a warm pack? Scratching the area first? Do any of these methods work, and if so, why?
Activities: Sensory play
You might set out various materials for children to play with: kinetic sand, Mad Matter, regular play sand, water beads.
Activity: Make your own play dough
A classic activity, but approached from a scientific angle when done according to directions from the Royal Institution. Find the full instructions here.
Listen: “Oobleck! Make Up Your Mind!” from the fantastic children’s podcast Wow in the World
Activity: Make and play with oobleck, a non-Newtonian fluid
(Preferably while listening to the podcast!) Making oobleck is incredibly easy. Here are some excellent instructions and suggestions. But kids will figure out so much of this on their own.
For these activities, I was guided by the wonderful Royal Institution’s helpful video on body illusions (see the whole thing here; the activities below will link to specific sections of the video).
Activity: Proprioception experiments
- To begin, ask children to touch their noses. Then have them close their eyes and put their hands behind their backs. With their eyes still closed, they should then try to touch their noses again. Were they able to do it?
- Sixth finger illusion (for this you will need a free-standing mirror, though you can make do with flexible mirror tiles)
- Rubber hand illusion (here is an explanation of how and why this illusion might work)
- Another fascinating experiment: Stand in a doorway with your hands at your sides, then bring your hands out until the backs of your hands meet the doorway on each side. Press them firmly against the doorway for a minute, as though trying to lift them up, and then move out of the doorway. What happens to your hands?
Hands and Language
Watch: What Is Braille?
Read and discuss: DK Braille: Animals: Knowledge You Can Touch [Amazon | Bookshop]
Read and discuss: The Black Book of Colors, Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría [Amazon | Bookshop]
Resources: ASL Alphabet Chart
ASL Flashcards (for decoding, if you like)
ASL Top 150 Words (with videos)
Activity: Watch and learn “Hello, Goodbye” in ASL
Activity: Explore non-standard sign language terms
From the brilliant Instagram account @thefamilyvocab, which collects from around the world signs not present in standard ASL. Many wonderful signs to explore, from “guacamole” to “seahorse” to “Miffy” to “Black Lives Matter.”
Read On, Grown-Ups
- What Can A Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World, Sara Hendren [Amazon | Bookshop] — Hendren’s book considers design for disability, in small contexts (inexpensive and even homemade devices or solutions) and large ones (city planning), but the book is also an exercise in social imagination: what could the world become if we think “of things as if they could be otherwise” and rebuild? (Some responses to Covid, as she points out, are examples of what designers can achieve when working for the public good.) The book is filled with wonderful details, like the thought behind the DeafSpace designs at Gallaudet University. And while it might seem like niche reading for designers only, it’s written for a wide audience — most of us, after all, will experience disability at some point in our lives — and has so many useful, beautiful thoughts about the value of slowness under/despite capitalism, social justice, and the human body.
This site uses affiliate links. I might earn a small commission if you click through on the links to buy products. I only recommend things I have used and love.