Introducing Your Blind Child to Miniature Golf
by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: In celebration of Father’s Day, National Braille Press asked Mark Riccobono to share his experiences playing miniature golf as a child. His article, “Introducing Your Blind Child to Miniature Golf” was mailed along with a print-Braille edition of “Froggy’s Day with Dad,” an appealing story about father-child relationships. This article and many other book-related activities are part of a Great Expectations program NBP is launching this summer with Bridge Multimedia of New York <www.nbp.org>. Here is what Mark has to say about being a blind golfer:
When I was asked to offer some tips for parents of blind children to initiate a game of miniature golf, it reminded me of the fun times my friends and I had at the local driving range and putt-putt course where I grew up in Milwaukee. Now, as the blind father of three beautiful children, I look forward to sharing this same experience with my kids—when they are old enough to swing a club—especially my youngest two who have vision loss.
Until then, allow me some vicarious pleasure in sharing these tips with you. The key is to remember that vision is not a requirement for success and to use nonvisual cues. I might add that “putting makes perfect.”
Here are seven general guidelines to engage your child in a game of miniature golf:
- The Game: Like all children, your blind child first needs to understand the basic concept of the game: namely, that you use the club to strike a ball to land in a hole in the ground. The person who does so in the fewest number of swings wins. Sighted children see golf on TV and automatically know this, but your child will need to experience it firsthand. Play activities build important life skills and experiences for children, and golf is no exception.
- The Equipment: As a child, I remember having a plastic golf club at a very young age. If that’s not possible, use an adult club—yours, a neighbor’s, or a friend’s. Give your child some time to check out the club and to get comfortable with how to hold it and to swing, at first without the ball. Never mind about form, it’s the passion that counts!
- Lining Up the Ball: Help your child to understand that the ball will head in different directions, depending on the angle of the head. As a blind golfer there are several techniques you can use to line up the head of the club. The easiest is to reach down and feel the ball and club to make sure the golf head is pointed the way you want the ball to go. You can help your child get it right, but make sure he touches it and lines it up so that he learns how to make independent adjustments. If you do it for your son or daughter, they will never learn how to do it and will never improve. On an actual mini-course, people are less picky about touching the ball, so an older child might put his or her foot on the ball and line up the club against the foot. (This takes a bit more coordination, because it’s easy to accidentally kick the ball away.) Many clubs have a flat part on the handle; if you understand how that relates to the head of a club, you can also line up a club pretty reliably using that method. Let your child innovate and figure out his or her own way of keeping track of where the ball is and lining up a shot without moving the ball. This is not about perfection; this is about gaining experience.
- Taking a Swing: Perhaps the best way to give your child a chance to swing a club is to head on over to a nearby driving range. While a driving range is meant for distance hitting, nothing says you can’t use it for basic practice. Just learning to find and hit the ball at all is an important first step. Remember to give your child feedback on where the ball lands and how it relates to their positioning. While there is really no need to hit the ball hard, you do want your child to learn about the force required to get the ball where it needs to go across a long range. And let me don my educator cap and add that there are a number of math and science concepts you can work into the conversation too!
- Understanding the Course: Of course, swinging a club and hearing the ball go crack and swish doesn’t really give your child an understanding of the layout of a typical golf or putt-putt course. It’s important to get the full picture. On a less busy day go exploring with your child on a golf or putt-putt course (white cane included.) Let him or her explore, either by walking the course and feeling various obstacles and land features or by exploring from the sidewalk that generally wraps around a miniature course. Plan it on a day when you actually have time to both describe what’s what, but also to help your child learn exploratory skills. Touching is seeing, walking is discovering. I remember the course I frequently played on as a child had a hole located within a four-leaf clover. It seemed like a straightforward shot. But the hills in the surface caused more trouble than the curved edges, which I later discovered by walking the terrain. The white cane can be a helpful tool to use by making a tapping sound to indicate where the hole is or to point toward a particular direction to aim. You could also bring a small bell or other sound source to indicate direction—be creative.
- Keeping Score: While there is something charming about those tiny golf pencils and pads, your child can bring a slate and stylus and an index card.
- Play: The idea is to encourage play, so make it fun. And don’t forget to provide play-by-play announcements about why everyone else is snorting and laughing. “Oh, Mom’s ball just went into the pond!” Blind children are often excluded from what seems like basic information—“Your brother swung and missed the ball completely”—but which includes the stuff memories are made of.
In closing I want to encourage you to reach out to blind mentors in your area who could join your outing. Certainly, if you live in the Baltimore area, I would be pleased to participate <firstname.lastname@example.org> or contact your local affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind <https://nfb.org/state-and-local-organizations>. Blind mentors offer a great opportunity for blind children to build valuable relationships that can last a lifetime. There is a national association of blind golfers <www.usblindgolf.com> that I’m not personally familiar with, but their website says they have sponsored five thousand junior blind golfers since 1998.
Let the games begin. Just writing this reminds me that I need to get the kids ready for some summer outings. And the good thing is everyone can hit a hole-in-one at the ice cream store afterwards!