The Language of Touch

The sense of touch deeply affects us and evokes ancient, visceral sensations. It is the first sense to develop and the last one to decay, so that it always remains an open expressive and relational possibility. Along with sight, it is the one sense that can grasp the shape of an object and its spatial orientation. But unlike sight – which immediately grasps a form in its entirety – touch is an analytical sense that works through successive stages, in a temporal development.
I would like to invite you to a short tactile walk, starting from the Omero Museum, a special art museum in Ancona, Italy.


The uniqueness of this museum consists in the chance to touch all the art works on display: architectural models and plaster copies in reale size of some of the most important classical sculptures, from ancient Greece to the Renaissance (including many works by Michelangelo), up to original sculptures of contemporary art.

In this way, art is accessible to blind people and it is also an amazing experience for all those who normally use sight for knowing and orienting in the world. In fact, at the entrance of the museum, the staff invites “sighted” visitors to walk through the rooms in pairs, alternately wearing a darkening mask and exploring the art works by touch. Looking at the sculpture – after this hands exploration – is a truly amazing experience.

The next stop of our walk is the Tactile Forest, a simple idea of the Italian designer Bruno Munari. You can easily offer it to children, at home or at school: just hang many transparent nylon threads on the ceiling of an empty room (or an empty area) and attach different materials to the threads with clothes pegs.

Pieces of fabric, ribbons, shoe laces, jute, pannolenci, wool, cotton wool, cords, organza strips, doilies and lace, straw, fur scraps, wooden or metal rings, keys, padlocks, belt closures, pieces of bark… and every kind of material suitable to be touched while crossing the forest.


Another very interesting project by Bruno Munari is about tactile books. A book is usually considered a “conceptual thing”, primarily consisting of words and – sometimes – images. However it is also a concrete object and its phisicality plays an important role (even if we are not aware of it). A book communicates through its material, color, size, shape, smell, texture, hardness or softness, weight. Thus, a book is an interesting object to be explored itself, beyond the reading.

The prebooks are twelve little books, designed by Munari, in square size of 10 X 10 cm. Each one is made of a different material (paper, cardboard, fabric, transparent plastic, wood) and has got a different bindind. Through the pages there are some surprises: a wooden thread, a button, holes, a drawn insect… They offer to very young children a variety of stimuli, sensations and emotions. Like Munari said, they should give the sensation that books are indeed objects made like this and that they contain a wide array of surprises. Culture comes out of surprises, which are things that were unknown before.

prelibri by Bruno Munari
Some of the “Prebooks” by Bruno Munari

A tactile book is a recommended experience for every age: children, kids, teachers, parents, curious adults. In the photos below, you can see some books made by an Italian pre-school teacher during one of my workshops inspired by Munari’s work. After that, she offered a similar workshop to parents, who then gave the books to the children as a gift. It was a very significant experience, in order to share an educational approach of active learning by making something concrete. From words and thoughts to action on matter.

Tactile books built by parents for children
Tactile books built by parents for children

How to suggest a tactile experience to children?

“Today I have a very special thing for you: a book you can read keeping closed eyes…”. Children were surprised and amused by my words.

We sat around a table, I closed my eyes and solemnly opened a special book: it was made of two cardboard pages with a composition of various materials on them. While slowly touching the pages, I began to tell a story inspired by the tactile sensations I felt. “I’m going through a forest (crepe paper), the grass stings my bare feet because I lost my shoes… here is a small ice lake (a CD)… I can’t swim, how will I cross it?…”.

After the story, I invite children to do the same and try to read the book through their hands with closed eyes.

tactile books for children

Then I suggested children to create their own tactile-books. It was a small group of four, from three to five years old. I had already prepared several materials, neatly organized on a table, ready to be touched, chosen and eventually cut in different shapes and sizes: fabrics, papers, plastics, ribbons, threads, small objects.

Each child was given two cardboard pages where placing the materials. Once the composition was ready, children glued the materials on the cardboard, using vinylic glue with a brush. Finally we joined the two pages with adhesive tape on the external-central side (taking into account the thickness of the materials). Everyone “read” the pages of the books, touching the materials and inventing stories, evoking images.

tactile books for children

Finally, l would like to share a simple game born by chance, while my mother was touching some stones I gathered near the sea. They were all similar but also a bit different from each other. Here’s how to play:

  • the stones are placed on a table
  • one of the players closes his/her eyes and receives a stone (chosen by another player) that she/he will have to carefully explore by hands
  • the stone is put back in its place
  • the player opens his eyes and, looking at all the stones, tries to guess which one he touched

Of course, the more the stones are similar, the more details become significant… What other materials could we use to play? In how many other ways can stones be placed on the table? Or maybe on the floor?

Some properties of materials – like weight, solidity, temperature – are exclusively perceptible through touch. The infinite qualities of the surface of matter – such as smoothness or roughness, porosity, graininess and all the possible physical textures – are perceptible through the view as well, but belong in a privileged way to tactile perception.

The sense of touch helps us to perceive tiny details and differences, to enrich the exploration of the physical world.

Touch has got its own memory.

Let’s keep it always alive.

Art work by Maria Lai (detail)

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