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Learning To Play How Does a Blind Child Play? Adapting Play Adaptive Aids, Equipment, and Toys

Two boys having fun in the snowHow Does a Blind Child Play?
By Doris Willoughby
Reprinted from A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children

The tiny baby discovers his hands, his toes, the bars of his crib. He reaches for a jingling mobile. He shakes a rattle and enjoys the sound. All of this, and much more, is the same for the blind baby and the sighted.

How can we keep the world interesting and ever-expanding for the blind baby as he grows? We need to provide situations and objects which are interesting to the child and within his understanding.

Consider five-month-old Janie, a typical sighted baby. Much of the day she is placed on the floor, where she watches the family in their daily activities. She grabs the legs of the furniture and looks up at the walls and ceiling. If she sees a toy a few inches from her hand, she reaches for it and tries to crawl.

Five-month-old Kim, who is blind, may find her world quite different. Her mother, fearing that Kim will bump her head painfully, never lets her out of the playpen unless someone is holding her. The toys in the playpen are all the same smooth plastic texture. Kim hears various sounds, but has not learned the meaning of most of them. She cannot, of course, see the world outside the playpen. During the long periods alone, Kim is relying more and more on habitual stereotyped motions: shaking her head, rocking back and forth, batting at the side of the playpen. She is not trying to crawl.

Kim's problem is not blindness in itself. It is boredom.

Let us begin by letting Kim out of the playpen much of the time.

She may bump her head occasionally, but what child does not? If a serious danger exists, such as a steep stairway, we can bar it with a gate or other barrier. We might decide not to allow her into certain areas, and we might pad a few sharp edges and remove some fragile objects. All of this is simply "childproofing" the house as we would for any baby. Certainly an adult will be keeping track of her carefully, but she is in no more danger than any other baby. And now she will be in contact with various objects and areas, as she is placed on the floor in different rooms.

Next, let us provide Kim with more varied toys. In a sense we have already done so as we allow her to explore the rugs and the legs of the furniture. But let us also offer her fuzzy toys, and toys with other interesting textures and shapes. If some of her playthings make sounds, they provide an important bonus: a motivation to reach for a toy which she has not yet touched. Remember that Janie tried to creep toward a toy slightly out of reach. Kim will learn, of course, to feel around and hunt for what might be there; but it is also helpful to provide her with a definite goal. Jiggle a rattle and encourage her to reach for it. Set a tinkling music box near her hand and see if she can move toward it.

Let us begin to teach Kim the meanings of various household sounds. She has probably already learned to recognize the voices of family members, and it is very important to continue to talk with her. We will also show her the source of other sounds so that she can make associations. We will let her touch the vacuum cleaner just before we begin to clean. We will hold her hands under the faucet when we turn on the bath water.

Let us also seek a balance between playing with Kim and expecting her to amuse herself. On the one hand, she should not expect to be held and played with every moment. On the other hand, she does need companionship and stimulation. Every child should be rocked, held, bounced on the knee, etc.

Soon we will support Kim in a sitting position for short periods and encourage her to learn to sit alone.

The chapter on Travel discusses learning to walk. After a child begins to walk, it is vital that she or he continue active play and exploration. Avoid allowing patterns of passivity or stereotyped motions to develop. One child, for example, may want to rock on the rocking horse for hours on end. Another child might walk endlessly around a circle of furniture, long after he has passed the stage of needing support for his first steps. Provide a variety of locations and activities for your child's play, and encourage him to be active. If you observe a clearly undesirable pattern, you may need to limit firmly the amount of time spent on the rocking horse or whatever.

As the child grows older, continue to select toys thoughtfully. For example, avoid construction sets consisting of small pieces which do not interlock firmly: the construction will fall apart each time the child touches it. For the preschooler, an especially suitable set is the kind where all pieces are completely covered with little plastic bristles, so that any two pieces stick together with any contact. Blocks which are large and sturdy enough to stay in place are very suitable also. The slightly older child will enjoy construction sets where specific pegs must be fitted into specific holes - this can usually be done very well by touch.

Many table games may be purchased in a form which is adapted for the blind and suitable also for the sighted. Furthermore, games can often be altered at home for little or no money. For a very young child's card game with, say, five different pictures, you might glue on five different textures. If you learn Braille, or find a Braillist nearby, games for school-aged youngsters can quickly be adapted. You will find it helpful to talk with someone who has experience in planning easily used adaptations. Many games, of course, require no modification, as in the case of commercial dominoes which already have raised or recessed dots.

If your child has some sight, he will probably like bright or contrasting colors.

Don't let these suggestions, or your concern about your child's disability, cause you to deluge him with enormous quantities of playthings. Too many possessions can confuse a child. Do not assume that all of your child's toys must be made especially for him; many toys on the regular market are entirely suitable for blind children. On the other hand, homemade and hand-me-down toys can be as good as or better than fancy new ones.

In showing your boy or girl a physical skill, such as skipping or riding a tricycle, explain carefully according to his age. Take hold of the child as you move him through the motion, and/or have him touch someone else's arms and legs as the motion is performed. He may need to be taught how to run, with someone holding onto him at first. Below are some ideas which may help your young child to enjoy practicing activities such as these without fear:

Provide an open area with nothing in the way.

Call him and have him come toward you.

Watch him and tell him whenever he is near an obstacle.

Put up a rope that he may follow with one hand. (Note: This idea may also help the child who is slow to walk, or who walks with an unnatural posture. Place the height of the rope carefully.)

Place a tactual reminder near the end of the area, so that he may slow down at the appropriate time. A piece of tape might be placed near each end of the rope. Natural warnings, such as the slope near the end of the driveway, may be pointed out to the child.

Let him practice with a partner.

It may seem hard to teach the young blind child where the yard ends. Although a fence solves this problem, it is not the only possible solution. Other tactual boundaries include a row of decorative rocks, the edge of the lawn, the side of the driveway, the curb, etc. If there is something on the house that makes a noise, such as wind chimes, it may help the very young child remember how to get back to the house. (For an older child or adult, however, setting up such a noisemaker is unnecessary and overprotective.)

Climbing activities generally require no adaptations for the blind. However, climbing tends to frighten those who may watch and underestimate the child's ability, and thus you may need to do a concentrated job of educating the neighbors. In this, as in all physical activity, remember that blindness as such has no effect on health or strength. The child who gets plenty of exercise will generally be healthier. It is the overprotected child who is likely to have more health troubles.

Most children enjoy art and craft activities. Although the child with no sight cannot sketch with a pencil or enjoy standard coloring books, he may like to scribble with a crayon, and he may enjoy various kinds of raised-line drawing arrangements. For the young child, however, it is usually most successful to provide him with a medium which is naturally tactual—clay, finger paint, collage, etc. ("Collage" means making a design or picture by pasting down such things as buttons and yarn.) The older child will also enjoy more sophisticated media such as macramè, soap carving, string art, and metal sculpture. The school-age child may bring home ideas from art class or from clubs, and the teachers of such groups will be glad to furnish you with more suggestions.

When your child becomes interested in bicycles or skateboards, there may be some difficult decisions to make in weighing safety against fun and exercise. For the child with considerable useful sight, it is often possible to select an area where it is safe for him to ride alone. The same may be true of the totally blind child, with emphasis on tactual boundaries such as the driveway. Following another rider, or otherwise being assisted by another person, is sometimes the only safe arrangement. A tandem bike may be ideal. Imagination combined with care can provide valuable fun and exercise.

In activities such as swimming, no particular adaptations are needed, other than explaining things in a non-visual manner and providing a way for the youngster to keep track of where he is. (Example: "Realize that the loudspeaker is at the deep end of the pool.")

Specific ideas for certain types of games appear below. These are examples, only, and your own ingenuity will provide many more ideas.

Race, ball games, and target games:

Have the blind child run with a partner, or right behind someone. Alternatively, the runner may hold onto a large ring, which slides along a rope.

Provide tactual indications (or bright, obvious markings for those with useful sight) for sidelines, tracks, etc. If the borderline between the grass and the driveway coincides with the sideline in a game, the blind player will recognize it easily.

Assign the blind player to a particular appropriate position and allow him to stay there longer than usual. Examples include the server in volleyball, and the shortstop or an extra infield position in softball.

Modify the rules slightly to give the blind player a fair chance. Example: He need not catch a fly ball to put a batter out, but need only touch it before the batter reaches base.

An informal game for young children is as follows: Clothespins are to be tossed into a metal bucket or tub. The blind child stands at the bucket and then takes a couple of steps backward (clothespins in hand). When he tosses each clothespin, he can hear whether it has landed in the bucket, grazed it, or missed altogether. The blind child can easily collect the clothespins, since they will not roll far. (Note: walking backward from the goal does not provide enough accuracy for a more advanced target game. Taking hold of the child and facing him toward the goal is not very accurate either. It is best to provide a sound at the goal during the blind child's turn, as described below.)

Kickball is often easier for the blind player than is baseball or softball.

Pitching to a blind batter is often impractical. Instead, a batting tee may be used (a tall plastic cone or other device to support the ball stationary at batting height). Alternatively, the batter may throw the ball straight up for himself and bat it as it comes down, or simply hold the ball in one hand and the bat in the other. A fairly large ball may just be placed on the ground.

A larger than usual ball may be used, or a ball which contains a noisemaker.

Provide a sound at the target or goal. This may be a mechanical noisemaker, person's voice, someone tapping on the target, etc. The child can then run toward the sound, or throw a ball toward it, as the case may be.

For actual bowling at a bowling alley, a special device called a "bowling rail" may be purchased. The blind player lightly follows this guide with his free hand while stepping forward. (A wall or other guide may be used in the same manner as a rail.) Someone then tells the player which pins remain standing.

For toy bowling games, the players usually merely stand behind a line, and do not step forward in the manner of real bowlers. Provide a sound directly behind the pins.


For a very low, toy trampoline, no adaptations may be needed. With a large trampoline, "spotters" should be standing around the edge anyway, and these people may call out directions. A bell pinned or sewn under the center of the canvas may be helpful also.



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