Sensory Brushes & Consent Culture

TulipTreeElm House Blog1 Comment

By Laurie

Our introduction of sensory brushes as a tool for the children in transitions this year went in directions we couldn’t have expected, but has been really wonderful to watch. Sensory brushes are used in a very specific brushing protocol, often proscribed by an occupational therapist (O.T.), in order to bring an overstimulated or sensory-avoiding system into regulation. For this reason, and because none of us are trained in brushing protocols, I hesitated for a long time in introducing our toddlers to this specific sensory tool. However, the brushes themselves are soft, easy to clean, and we did coach with the children in ways to use them on your body, with permission on a friend’s body, or on a stuffed animal. Toddlerhood is such a sensory-rich experience, I was curious how children would end up using the brush, themselves.

Some simple agreements about the brushes: sensory brushes do not go in your mouth: yuck! Brushes can be used on your feet, your hands, your tummy,even your nose! Ask consent before brushing someone else’s body, and check-in if they like it. Sensory brushes get put away before using the bathroom.

I have noticed many children like sensory brushing on their hair, and have gotten into the practice of brushing each other’s  hair. Things like hands, feet, and faces are sensitive and if kids like them brushed, they often like to brush those parts of their bodies themselves. We have conversations with kids about how the brush feels- is it prickly? Is it soft? Is it different on your elbow than on your toes?

When Tulip Tree Preschool, our sister school, brought over new stuffies for us to enjoy in the winter, the sensory brushes went into rotation as a way to care for our new furry friends.

One particular group of children: ZP, TW, MS, LS, IC and CG have been working with and really bonding with the brushes for a while, and using these brushes as a way to strengthen the bonds between each other. The way that this has happened between this group of children and the use of the brush (mind you, brushes often come out in transitions- so while children are waiting in the hallway for a turn to use the bathroom, most commonly) has been in asking others in their group for consent to brush their bodies.

LS and CG will often introduce the subject by saying “Can I brush you?” or more specifically, “Can I brush your hair?”. If children do not consent to getting brushed, there is the secondary option of brushing the loveys, or their own bodies. But as the year has progressed this group has been working on calm bodies in the hallway while waiting for a turn, and these brushing techniques they’ve invented themselves have practiced asking permission, checking in, calming down, and waiting as a group.

Most recently I observed an interaction between ZP and TW where TW wanted to brush someone. ZP, who was already laying down in the hallway pulled up his shirt for a tummy brush and said, “Yes, my belly.” TW thought about this and offered “Can I brush your hair?” “Yes” said ZP, whose body and manner seemed very relaxed with his friends. TW brushed the hair lightly off of ZP’s forehead and said to ZP, “OK I just need to make you look nice.” after a bit more brushing in silence he exclaimed in delight, “I made ZP’s hair different!”. TW then continued to check in about brushing ZP’s body- can I brush your nose? and then, “ZP, what next?” and ZP would answer in a happy voice “My feet.” or “My elbow.” There is an aspect of social preening to watching the kids interact in this way, especially our 3’s (mostly this group has just turned 3) a sense of self control over impulsiveness and silliness in taking care of each other.

One of the other children in our group, ER, was clearly taking in this idea about asking and checking in while we were in our hallway/ bathroom transition. We got outside after these transitions and ER made a game with ZP, who was relaxing in the stump circle watching other children play, where she would bring him large fistfulls of lemonbalm. “Would you like more?” she would say. “Yeah, more.” ZP would say. Again she would run over and fill the bowl between them, “More lemonbalm?” “Yeah.” nodded ZP, “Fank you ER.”


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