Future Reflections        Summer 2013

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Adventure Walks: Helping Your Child Who Is Blind Move Around Outdoors

by Susan Shier Lowry, COMS, CTVI

Reprinted with permission from <www.wonderbaby.org>.

From the Editor: Hands-on experience is an essential component in the education of a blind child. While sighted children may gather information by watching videos or gazing from car windows, blind kids need plenty of direct experience through touch in order to build basic concepts. The opportunity to touch objects can also stimulate a child's interest in movement and exploration. In this article, Susan Shier Lowry suggests ways to give young blind children hands-on experience in the outdoors.

Adventure walks are outdoor explorations and field trips turned into learning opportunities. Children who are blind or have low vision often miss important information about the world around them, especially in outdoor settings and public places. By helping them get "up close and personal" with objects you can improve their understanding, increase language opportunities, and enrich social exchanges with family and friends. A full memory bank of touching, hearing, smelling, and looking, established outdoors and in the community, will build important concepts for further classroom learning. Also, children who are blind increase their tactile tolerance and curiosity this way. Children with low vision enjoy the same benefits and expand their understanding of what they see, therefore improving their functional vision.

Let's Go on an Adventure Walk!

Dad lifts Ivan Bobnar to touch the leaves of a tree.Get outdoors on a daily basis to explore, touch, smell, and look at a variety of natural and human-made items in the family yard, schoolyard, or playground. Some examples of things your child can examine are shrubs, flowers, trees, mailbox, bird feeder, sprinkler, family car, grass, sidewalk, gravel, mulch, and play equipment.

Take your child often on outings to parks, stores, and community events. Offer extra time to look, touch, name, and smell a huge variety of common items in these settings. Keep in mind that your blind or visually impaired child is probably unable to see in any detail most of what is around him. Even a child with relatively high partial vision may only be able to recognize objects up to three feet away.

Hands-on Exploration

Pick up your child or get her close to an object, providing the option of touch. Tell her what the object is and touch it yourself. Make a natural sound with the object if possible, giving your child lots of time to look and listen.

Repeat these walks often. Regular exposure should increase your child's interest and tolerance. Move away to honor any hesitation shown by your child, but offer the experience again soon.

Use your child's preferred mode of movement to explore outdoors, such as independent walking, human guide, carrying, or wheeling her in a wagon. When possible, bring your child to the object. If not, bring the object to her.

If your child walks, encourage him to move freely all over the yard or playground. While you follow closely to supervise, provide verbal interpretation of surfaces, sounds, and objects. If it is safe for him to do so, let him contact obstacles with his hands or cane instead of guiding him around them. Tell him what he is about to touch.

Providing Options

As your child explores, take note of what she especially enjoys and return to these locations and activities later. She may not always prefer the play equipment you have thoughtfully selected and set up! For a time she may prefer splashing in the puddle at the top of the driveway, scraping her feet in the gravel, or turning on the garden hose. Use whatever she loves most to make movement and exploration outdoors meaningful and fun.

For a child who is anxious, or for a child who is not yet stable enough to walk well over the ground surface, provide human guide or hand-holding while encouraging him to choose where to go. Over time encourage him to release your hand more and more. Walking over uneven surfaces outdoors increases balance and stability.

Ivan holds onto the branch of a tree.A toddler will often plop into a sitting position when walking over an uneven outdoor surface. Allow this fall to happen if you know your child is not likely to get hurt, and then encourage him to stand back up without your help. This may require him to put his hands down on the surface (grass, mulch, sand, etc.) and push into standing. This can be a good experience for building upper body strength and increasing tactile awareness and tolerance.

For infants and children who do not move independently yet, provide a small blanket for sitting in the grass, sand, or mulch. Let your child find these surfaces along the edge of the blanket in her own time. It is fine for her to touch and then withdraw. Over repeated trials she is likely to begin moving to the new texture more and more on her own, if she is not required to touch it.

Our children often need extra motivation to play outdoors. At first the outdoors may only represent an overwhelming collection of unfamiliar sensations such as ground textures, air temperatures, breezes against the skin, and the sounds of animals, lawn care, and traffic. Repeated experiences with enjoyable activities and play items may give your child a reason to explore the outdoors. These experiences might include wading in a pool, playing on swings, riding on Grandpa's tractor, washing the dog, putting gravel in a pail, playing in the leaves, chasing a beach ball, pushing a cart, riding a wheeled vehicle in the driveway, or walking to the car instead of being carried.

When setting up play equipment and wading pools, consider locating them within a few feet of the door of the house or classroom. Leave them predictably positioned. If using two or three different pieces, position them four to six feet apart, and again leave them in the original arrangement. This way your child can learn to move to the area independently, and then to move from one piece of equipment to another. Ask your child's O&M specialist for suggestions regarding the actual route and arrangement.

Children who are light sensitive, or photophobic, can enjoy playing outdoors with some simple precautions. Hats with broad brims, sun-protecting eye shades, and play areas under shade trees or in the shadow of a building can make a big difference. Your O&M specialist can help determine appropriate light protection and offer suggestions about increasing your child's tolerance for them.

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