Future Reflections Summer 2012
by Heather Field
From the Editor: A native of Australia and blind since infancy, Heather Field draws upon more than thirty years of experience as a teacher and consultant in Australia and the United States to write this article. She lives and works in Tennessee, where she runs a small private school for sighted and blind students and pursues her career as a songwriter. She is the contact person for the NOPBC in Tennessee and is working hard to form its Tennessee chapter.
When most people hear the word sports, they think of people running about with various combinations of balls and bats or sticks. The word recreation suggests camping, hiking, golf, surfing, or birding. Whatever activities people think of, their mental pictures rarely include blind adults, and certainly they don't involve blind children.
Those of us who are parents or educators of blind children are more likely to have expectations about their involvement in sports and recreation. We probably think of school-age children roller skating, swimming, wrestling, bowling, doing judo or gymnastics, or taking part in Brownies and Cub Scouts. However, it's unlikely that even the most informed among us have given much thought to sports and recreation for blind children under eight years of age. Yes, of course, we know they need to play, and we classify play as a form of recreation. We know it's not good for blind children to play inappropriately--rocking, spinning, poking their eyes, or aimlessly banging and sucking on toys--but usually that's about as far as the play discussions get.
Instead of thinking about blind children spending their time in recreational activities, we tend to talk about and work on trying to get young blind and low-vision children to play. We try to engage them in active play, social play, dramatic play, role play, appropriate play, and so on. Many of us, who should know better, move their bodies through space, trying to make them do the things we want them to do, the things we call play. We do all this adult-controlled taking and making in the hope that, when we stop and leave our children alone to entertain themselves, they will realize that this movement was play and will want to do it again without us.
This approach usually gets task compliance; however, as we have seen over and over, it fails to get children to move in ways that we understand as play. Faced with this result, we may plug away with the same old failing approach because we can't bear to give up. On the other hand, we may resign ourselves to our children's inactivity and strange behavior, blaming it all on their blindness.
Such resignation isn't surprising. Many blindness professionals warn us to expect delayed development and antisocial behavior from our young blind and low-vision children. The professional literature tells us that blind children probably won't crawl, and that they may not even walk until they're two or three years old--let alone run, climb, ride a tricycle, or learn to swim. When we observe our blind and low-vision children not playing, behaving strangely, and seeming to ignore the world around them, many of us become deeply discouraged, believing that the professionals must be right. All too often, we conclude that this behavior is normal for blind children. We come to feel that blindness is a tragedy that will prevent our children from leading independent, fulfilling lives. After all, the most normal thing in the world is for children to play, and, tragically, our blind children just don't seem to do that. But this is not an accurate conclusion.
We cannot afford to keep trying the same old "take and make" approach, and we cannot give up on our children, believing that blindness will bar them from normal human behavior. Instead, we need a completely new mindset. We must base our thinking on the premise that blind/low-vision children are children first, that they are like all other children, and that the lack of vision is merely a secondary consideration. Only then can we apply what we know about children and early childhood development within the nonvisual context.
The patterns set in the first years of life are critically important. Much of a child's character is molded during early childhood. In the early years he/she forms self-perceptions as well as relationships with other people and with the world. Research shows that it is difficult to alter a person's beliefs and expectations after the age of thirteen or fourteen. Thus, if we want blind and low-vision children to think of themselves as people who engage in active pursuits such as sports and outdoor recreation, we have to give them positive experiences in the early years. They must learn that recreational activities are fun and satisfying, and that they can, in fact, participate.
"All very well in theory," you may be muttering, "but you don't know my child. He doesn't want to do anything but sit and rock ... or press buttons on noise-making toys ... or open and close the fridge door ... or chew on his blankie ... or ..." (you can fill in the activity). "How do you propose I get my child from there to 'sports and recreation'?"
Obviously, this is a very important question. Before I suggest sports and recreational activities for the under-eights, I want to talk about the cause and prevention of the inappropriate behaviors so prevalent among young blind and low-vision children. How do we convince them to stop themselves doing the inappropriate behaviors and get them to try new things?
Note that I said "How do we convince them to stop themselves," and not "How do we stop them?" Getting children to want to stop and to want to try new things is the real problem to be solved.
The official position of the NFB on blindness is that "the problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight, but the misconceptions and lack of information that exist about blindness." This is true in the area of the development of young blind children. The misconception is that blind infants and toddlers don't want to move like other children do; obviously, we think, they would move if they wanted to. Because they don't move as typical children do, we believe we have to make them move (or try to make them) until they finally do want to, or until we decide they're beyond changing.
People continue to believe this misconception, even though it doesn't fit with anything else we know about children and early childhood development. As Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." A child, whether it's called blind or given another label, is still a child. Its essential "childness" is not altered by characteristics such as the amount of vision. Furthermore, to believe the misconception that blind infants and toddlers don't want to move like other children do requires us to ignore all of the blind and low-vision children who develop like typical children of the same age.
The average parent knows three things about young children and play:
1. Children want to do things--to play.
2. Children want to choose what they do--to decide for themselves.
3. Children can't be made to want to do something. (Try getting a two-year-old out of the bath when he doesn't want to get out!)
Why, then, do we ignore these three basic principles about play when it comes to blind children? After all, they are still children!
Let's assume for a moment that blind and sighted children are identical except for the fact that one group gets information about movement options through the eyes and the other group does not. The average sighted child, from the time she is born, is driven to move. She watches how others move and does the same. In fact, by the time she is four or five years old, most of our movement-related conversations with her are about moderating or stopping particular movements. "Stop running! ... Don't throw that! ... Get down off there! ... Don't jump from up there! ... Sit down! ... Stop hitting! ... Give that back ..." Why do we expect that the child with little or no usable vision will be different? Her inner drive to move is just as strong and irresistible as it is in the child who is sighted. This is the reason so many blind children rock or engage in repetitive behaviors. They need to move and they do move, though they do not move in ways that typically sighted children do.
Why do blind children move in ways that seem so strange? Is it because blindness causes different behavior patterns? No! It's simply because blind children lack information on available movement options. Blind and low-vision children don't visually observe the movements of others. Unfortunately, sighted caregivers usually don't realize that they need to give the blind child information about movement options in nonvisual ways. Even when they recognize the need, they may not know what to do. Joe Cutter, the renowned orientation and mobility instructor, author, and speaker, discusses the problem like this:
"Just because a child is lacking eyesight, s/he is not lacking the 'drive to move and the need to know.' We don't see with the eye and hear with the ear; rather we see and hear with the brain! A young blind child simply needs assistance in learning how to move and in finding out what there is to know."
Sighted children aren't born knowing how they can move; they observe others moving and copy them. The blind child is equally capable of observing; he just can't observe using vision. If the blind child is given the opportunity to observe through his other senses, he will learn just as the sighted child learns. Cutter says, "I believe in the interconnectiveness of the sensory systems, that vision is only one system and that blind children have a multitude of systems available to them (touch, auditory, vestibular, proprioceptive, smell, taste, the drive to move, the need to know, the ability to self-amuse, etc.). We must invite blind children to make the world their home; to move safely, confidently, and effectively ..."
Clearly, it's not lack of vision that keeps blind children from moving in age-appropriate ways. Rather, it's the lack of information about how people move and what's out there in the world worth moving toward. It's also the lack of people who know how to help them get this information. As is true with all children, at first caregivers must bring the world to the child in meaningful ways. Eventually, Cutter explains, "The goal is for the child to initiate movement him/herself. Parents and other adults in the child's life can facilitate movement by showing the child that the world is a safe place where s/he can find fun and enjoyment. First the adults bring the world to the child; then we help the child go to the world him/herself."
Why is movement so vitally important? Why is it so much a part of the young sighted child's life that it needs to be part of the life of the young blind child, too? "One of the things a child must do in order to make sense of the world is to put together, or integrate, the information s/he takes in through the senses (sensory integration). But a child cannot integrate information that s/he does not have! So one of the keys is making sure the child is receiving information about the world. How does a blind child get information about the world? Largely through movement. Movement brings the child into contact with objects and people in the world. If a child is restricted in movement, s/he will be restricted in information about the world."
If he doesn't know his movement options, the child won't choose them. Because the blind child needs to interact physically with the world--touching, tasting, smelling, balancing, sensing slope--it is vital that he move about. Children, blind and sighted, need to move to understand themselves and their world; the blind or low-vision child needs movement even more than the sighted child does.
The research on the play of young children shows that it is practice for life. Children learn about living life in safe, pretend situations so that they are ready and able to deal with reality when they need to. Playing up and down the steps unassisted at home gets the child ready for all the steps out there in the world. Hunting for a lost ball in the back yard or in the park lets him practice information-gathering and problem-solving, perseverance and courage, all of which he will need later on. His sense of accomplishment when he achieves his goals in play situations teaches him what to expect when he sets goals at school and beyond. Movement in play situations readies children for movement in the real world.
In summary, blind and low-vision children want to move, but they need us to interact with them in ways that don't rely on vision. If they learn that there are thousands of fun ways to move, and they learn to make these movements with confidence based on success through play, they will be able to apply this experience when they face the demands of real life. Through movement they learn that this world is a fabulously interesting place and that there are lots of fun things one can do in it. However, in order to teach the blind child about these possibilities, parents and teachers must think about the world in nonvisual ways.
Now that we've established that blind and low-vision children want to move, and that we need to help them observe their movement options nonvisually, we can talk about bringing purpose and meaning to their movement through sports and recreation. In the truest sense, sports and recreation choices begin at birth. Babies start with recreational activities such as finding their fingers and toes. Later they discover the satisfaction of self-initiated movement as they attempt to imitate the movements of the people around them. As for sports--as soon as a baby has played his first game of peek-a-boo, or has kept bouncing when you have stopped, encouraging you to bounce him more, he has played his first sports event.
Getting your blind tween or teen interested in sports and recreation starts with the games he plays with you as an infant, toddler, and preschooler. As a sighted parent or teacher, you may have trouble coming up with ideas for nonvisual movement experiences and interactions. However, I find that with a few initial ideas, a couple of successes, and the expectation that blind children can attain age-appropriate behavior, sighted people can become very good at providing sports and recreation activities for young blind and low-vision children. As your child learns all the ways he can move alone and with other people, he will be able to engage in constructive recreational activities and in age-appropriate games and group play or sports. Who knows, he might end up being the first blind man from your state to win a marathon or fly a hot-air balloon across the Atlantic--all because you showed him he could climb the monkey bars and jump onto a pile of gym mats when he was four years old.
If you ask parents what sports and recreational experiences they give their sighted babies and toddlers, they will probably look at you strangely. Parents don't realize that the big red ball they roll with their infant, the swing that their toddler enjoys, and the wading pool into which their preschooler jumps all morning are all sports and recreational experiences. With some adaptations, you must provide the same kinds of experiences for your blind or low-vision child. The only special consideration is to give your child lots of information and choice about the experiences. To feel safe one must feel in control, and one can only feel in control when one can choose an activity based on adequate information.
Here are some suggested activities to get you started on your sports and recreation plan for your blind or low-vision child. Even if your child is over age eight, it's never too late to apply the principle that children will do what they want to do if they believe they can do it.
Interactive play is the foundation of purposeful movement in babies. We need to play with blind babies just as we do with typically sighted children, taking care to provide nonvisual interaction such as touching the hand and using a playful tone of voice rather than merely smiling.
1. Give your baby lots of close physical contact. Your infant may enjoy being carried about in a sling or "snuggle sack." Right now you are his sports and recreation. Basically, you're teaching him that life and people are safe and lots of fun, and that interacting with people--belonging to a team rather than being alone--is very satisfying.
2. Create interesting midline (vertical center line of child's body) space in varied situations so that your baby's movements will bring him into contact with things to touch and hear. When the baby is lying in a crib, dangle toys from cradle gyms and mobiles so that they are within his reach. When the baby is sitting independently or playing in a playpen, place interesting toys within reach. In this way, his attempts at choosing recreation outside of his own body are rewarded. He learns that his mind can be engaged. He can set goals for himself ("I'll reach out and find something to do"), and he can achieve those goals. This sense of personal achievement motivates children like nothing we can offer them.
3. Play games--lots and lots of games, all kinds of games. Tickling games; touching and naming body part games; snuggling games where you blow "raspberries" on baby's tummy, back, legs, or arms; jiggling games where you hold baby in your arms and dance to some fun music. Try anything you can think of to interact with the baby. Also, play patty-cake and other hand and finger games that encourage the baby to hold his hands at midline.
4. Place the baby's hands on his bottle when he is being fed. When he knows the word bottle and the sound of the bottle being shaken, encourage him to reach out and grab it and to hold it for himself. This teaches him that he can choose to control what's happening to him.
5. Who's This: Provide objects and stuffed animals of various textures and shapes. Sit them on the baby's tummy or lap and make appropriate, funny noises. Encourage your baby to touch and explore.
6. Hide and Seek: Encourage your baby to search for an object that has been withdrawn slightly from his touch.
7. Get Me: Encourage your baby to reach toward the sound of a familiar toy and grab it, first at midline, and then at various points within reaching distance.
8. Wiggle-Wiggle: This game will help your baby understand that spatial information can be gained through sound. Place a rattle or bell in your child's hand or around his wrist or ankle. Alternately move his hand or foot and then keep it still. Do the same with your own hand or foot and let the baby feel you do it.
9. Chasey: Slowly move a sound-making toy, keeping it within your baby's reach. Encourage him to catch it.
10. Talk to your baby about his activity, naming the objects he contacts and the actions he performs.
All of these suggestions are meant to be fun for you and your baby. Enjoy your play! (Based on the study "The Development of Reaching in Blind Children as It Reflects Object Permanence," Hatem G., Hyrnan N., Keith E., Maida S., Rogone S., Saar M.)
Provide your child with lots of opportunities to move on and with you.
1. Slippy-Slidey: Sit on the couch or chair and slide the child down your legs to the floor. Let her climb back up and go down again as many times as she wants to (within reason!) Let her roll down sideways as well as headfirst. Let her do the same with a big pile of cushions or pillows next to the couch.
2. Squashy-Squeezy: With your toddler on the floor, tell her you are going to go "squashy squeezy." Put your body over her and cuddle down around her. Let her escape by crawling or rolling out from under you. Try variations where you catch her legs or arms and let her struggle to escape. Let her climb on you and do the same.
3. Bouncey-Wouncey: Sitting on the floor, set your toddler on your outstretched legs and bounce her on your knees. Say, "Uh-oh, it's going to tip you off!" and gently tumble her off after seven or eight bounces. Over a period of days, remove your hands from supporting the toddler and let her enjoy the freedom. She will soon tip herself off onto the carpet. Move on to bouncing her on other parts of your body. Lying on your back, draw up your knees and set the toddler on your legs with your feet supporting her back. Hold her by the upper legs and very gently bounce her. Make the same progression toward the child holding on by herself and balancing independently. Move to sitting the toddler on your back and bouncing her as you lie face down on the floor. When she shows she's ready to try something new, move to being on all fours and bouncing and swaying her about as she lies and, finally, sits on your back.
4. Roly-poly: Let your toddler lie on your front and roll off, helping with your arm to make it a gentle experience. Your toddler will want to roll around and soon will not need your arm support. Let her roll up and down the length of your body, from chest to feet and back again. Remember to keep up the verbal commentary, such as, "Oh dear, someone's rolling on me like a rolling pin! Someone's squashing me flat." (Of course you can show her how a rolling pin works, using Play-Doh or pastry dough.) Once she is good at rolling, let her roll up and down and on and off on your back.
5. Swing-Swing: Holding your toddler's hands and feet, gently swing her back and forward, from side to side, and from head to foot. Start by only doing three swings and then put her down. If she enjoys it, introduce her to a real swing.
6. Jumping Jack: Stand your toddler on the bed and bounce her up and down as you hold her around the waist. Encourage her to jump by herself. When she is independently making jumping movements, hold her hands and let her jump herself, using you only as a guide. As soon as she is confident with this, move her onto a mini trampoline. (There are trampolines with attached handles for children to hold onto as they jump).
7. Chasey: Have your toddler catch you as you move away from her. Keep talking the whole time you are running away, saying things like, "I'm going down the hall to the bathroom. Catch me, catch me! Uh-oh, here she comes! She's gonna catch me, she's getting closer!" Let the child catch you after only a few seconds when you first introduce the game, and make the time longer as she gets better at it. Have your toddler run away from you as you chase her. This is a good outside game. One parent or a friend can hold the toddler's hand and run with her while the other parent (making lots of noise) chases them. At first the toddler will not run; she will walk fast. She will need to learn what run means by doing it.
8. Seesaw: Find a seesaw at the local park and invite another parent to put her toddler on with yours. Hold them in place and explain what's going to happen. Say, "Up and down," as the seesaw moves. If no other child is available, work the seesaw yourself.
9. Independent Play: These are some of the toys that allow a toddler to play independently: toys that can be pulled or pushed, such as a doll's stroller or play shopping cart; sit-on riding toys, a large beach ball, an inflated inner tube, a wading pool, and a sandbox.
The following ideas can be used with younger children where appropriate and should occur spontaneously as part of the movements they observe you doing. The list below is intended to be a resource of ideas that you can incorporate into your everyday play activities. This is not a list of things for you to do to your child. Instead, it is a list of experiences that would be great for a blind/low-vision child to have. For example, walking a balance beam should not be a required activity, but can be part of a game, such as crossing the bridge in a favorite story. Rolling off a pile of gym mats or cushions can be a variation on a game of Chasey. Going for a walk over different surfaces can be a game of Hunt the Tiger. Punching the knock-down clown can be Kill the Monster.
The emphasis should always be on letting the child observe what you do and choosing his own movements. Allow the child to try out his own ideas and suggest several choices if he does not initiate a movement: "Do you want to climb up the monkey bars, or would you like to go underneath and have a look what's down there?" Remember that children learn through repetition and may want to do the same activity a number of times before moving on to something new. Rolling off a pile of mats may not seem exciting to us as adults, but it's very exciting when you're three years old and you've just discovered that you can do it by yourself.
1. Knock-Down Clown: Place the clown next to the child. Tap or move it against his body, encouraging him to grasp it and knock it down.
2. Balloon or Beach Ball: Suspend a balloon or beach ball with string and tape. Sway it back and forth, tap it, rub it, and encourage the child to do the same. Turn it, hold it, and make speech sounds or vibrations. Rub it on the child's face and hands. You can insert rice or other sound-making objects, or you might attach small bells to the string.
3. Bells: Suspend a bell or string of bells. Try to stimulate a reaction to the sound.
4. Bounce or roll a beach ball past or toward the child, or use a soft ball with a bell inside.
5. Open or close doors with the child.
6. Carrying: Carry or hold objects with one or both hands. Vary the size and weight of the object.
7. Crawling and Climbing: Put the child on or under a rolled-up mat. If necessary, help him roll off, get out, or climb over.
8. Walking Trips: Take walks over gravel, rocks, grass, sand, dirt, cement and blacktop, carpet, and tile. Climb over logs, go up and down ramps, and climb stairs. Walk through puddles. Climb on large boulders and duck under chains.
9. Exploring: Examine things in the environment, such as trees, shrubs, stairs, tables, benches, and play equipment. Encourage the child to move around by himself, exploring with his hands or using his long white cane.
10. Wheels: Expose the child to toys that roll and have moveable parts.
11. Balloon: Attach balloon with elastic to wrist or ankle.
12. Rocking: Expose to rocking horse or teeter-totter. Tumble about, even if only one hand is on it.
13. Scooter-Board: Have child lie on tummy on a scooter-board and pull himself along with his hands. Sit and twirl in swivel chair or sit/lie down on a wheeled vehicle and be pulled, pushed, etc. Include a three-wheel vehicle if possible.
14. Shopping Bags and Boxes: Fill them up with items and take things out.
15. Gym Mats: Child moves about on all fours, lifting up one leg or arm at a time. Kick like a grumpy horse or lash out to scratch like a fierce tiger! Child rolls across the length and breadth of the mat. Place the mat on a slope or double the mat over and let the child roll or run down the resulting hill.
16. Hidey House Box: Get a big cardboard box from an appliance store. Let the child hide inside it, crawl in and out, pull the "door" shut, sit in it, and bang on it from the inside. Tip the box from the closed end so the child slides out onto the floor. Put the open end of the box on the couch so child slides down inside to the other end.
17. Balance Beam: Use a regular low balance beam or a long, rectangular board six to twelve inches wide, supported by two bases several inches above the floor. Walk sideways on the beam. Crawl across it. Scoot across. Walk across with one foot on and one foot off. Straddle the beam. Use the balance beam as an inclined plane, one end supported by a box.
18. Inner Tube: Child can play with it, walk on it, and step in and out. Tie it to something and let him crawl through it. Suspend it several inches above the ground to make a tire swing and have the child lie in it on his tummy.
19. Sandbox: Bury the child's feet. Pretend he has lost them; be surprised when you dig them out. Encourage shoveling and scooping.
20. Toys: Old spinning tops, Slinky, Jack-in-the-Box, Fisher Price bus or house.
21. Water Play: Fill a basin or small pool with water. Put in toys such as sponges, boats, and rubber duckies. Wash items, rubbing and squeezing.
22. Water Pistol: Let the child squirt himself and others. Squirt objects such as balloons that will make a sound when water strikes them. Squirt water into a cup.
23. Missing Objects: Scatter toys on the floor. Crawl around and find them. Hide objects under cushions or behind furniture.
24. Spray Fun: Provide the child with a box of spray containers, such as shaving cream, whipped cream, Krazy Foam, Silly String, and water with scented oils added. Let the child spray them. Play with body lotions and powders. (This is a good outdoor activity.)
25. Bubbles: Feel them, break them, follow them.
26. Textures: Examine and identify the textures of food and substances.
27. Scents: Examine and identify the scents of food and substances.
28. Music: Encourage movement of body parts in many combinations, following rhythm.
29. Swinging: Introduce the child to objects that rock or swing--rocking chair, glider, or hammock. Let him feel the movement. Encourage him to try ways of moving his body that make the object move for him.
30. Pushing: Push objects with the hand off the table and into a container.
31. Licking: Let the child lick a lollipop or ice cream cone.
32. Obstacles: Encourage as much movement as possible in relation to obstacles. Use verbal terms such as left and right, sideways, around, over, under, on top of, go in, sit in, sit under. If needed, provide sound by tapping or by any other means to assist or motivate the child to climb or move. Help him find objects to catch, grab, strike, kick, or push. Throw objects to a person or at another object.
Barna, G. Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions. Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003.
Cutter, J. Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2007.
Eisenberg, J.P. and Quisenberry, N. "Play: Essential for All Children. A Position Paper of the Association of Childhood Education International." Childhood Education 79:1 (Fall 2002): 33-39.
Montagnino, A., Suggested Activities for Young or Multi-Disabled Blind Children. Blind Children's Resource Center, 2003. <www.blindchildren.org/sports_games/5_1_2.html>