Supportive playgrounds for blind and partially sighted children

Post date: 
Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Primary school children in playground

How can schools make playgrounds an easier place for pupils with vision impairment? Radhika Holmström reports.

“From a teaching perspective, the most important thing children with visual impairment need to experience in the playground is the freedom and ability to move through space independently,” says John Rous-Milligan. A qualified teacher of children with vision impairment, he is team leader for visually impaired children, young people and their families for Norfolk’s Virtual School Sensory Support. “That has such a knock-on benefit for confidence, and their ability to socialise and be included in a mainstream environment.”

Yet the playground can also feel hostile and confusing, if schools don’t address the practical issues. So what can schools do to make a difference?

Look at your playground from the child’s perspective 

There’s a lot that can be done to make it – literally – a level playing field. “Go into the playground and you quite often get lots of ‘lips’ – small steps that it’s easy to miss,” says Suzy McDonald, habilitation specialist with Birmingham Education and Mobility Service. “Or there’ll be lovely wooden playground equipment in soft colours or windows that open outwards, with sharp edges.” 

Both Suzy McDonald and John Rous-Milligan recommend doing an audit of the playground with the children who are blind or partially sighted, so that they can point out the things that someone else might never spot (like bushes that they always walk into that need to be cut back). In addition, they suggest some basic steps that every school should follow.

Provide visual, tactile and auditory clues 

“Encourage schools to mark up not just the horizontals – the steps to the playground or the gazebo – but the verticals – the posts that might not be seen – in a fluorescent colour,” says Suzy McDonald. “Look at the size of the children, too: they need marks at a level they can see.” 

“There are a few things that we’d usually like, like wind chimes, tactile pavement and so on. And make sure rails continue all the way beyond the steps. There’s nothing worse than a rail that stops just before the end. It needs that kind attention to detail,” John Rous-Milligan points out. 

Encouraging social interaction

There’s also a delicate balance between supporting a child – especially if they often have one-to-one support in class from a teaching assistant (TA) – and enabling them to play and socialise with peers. During their first few weeks at the school, some children do need a separate space just for them and a few others. But the aim is always to maximise their freedom and contact with other children.

“A playground buddy is a good idea. You can put Buddy bus stops to identify a place where all children can go and get another child to help them,” suggests Suzy McDonald. But instead of relying on someone else to take them to the stop, she’s clear that children with a vision impairment need to be taught how to get there themselves. Likewise they also need to be taught the route from the playground to the toilets.

If a child has an adult supporter during breaktime, she adds, it’s their role to ensure that they’re interacting with other children. “They can set things up, like skipping games or ball games, but shouldn’t get too involved themselves.” Audible equipment like jingle balls are a big help. 

The focus is on getting children to take part fully in playground life. “As a child, when you’re doing this, you’re developing not only independence but also social skills and confidence – you’re talking to other people all the time – and gross and motor skills too,” adds John Rous-Milligan.  

Space to be a child 

John Rous-Milligan returns to his point about moving confidently.  “We’re working with a year five pupil who had both her eyes removed quite recently. She told us the other day, ‘I had a lovely time chasing boys round the playground’. 

“That’s a perfect example of a good confident mover: she has the skills to move confidently and safely, she has the playground layout mapped out in her head and a group of friends who are so comfortable with her blindness that they’re saying, ‘hit them with your cane’. That wasn’t the school setting up a process for two girls to talk to the blind girl – it was about saying, ‘Off you go, this is your time’. 

“It’s hard work being blind. Break is the time that she gets the head space to be a little girl.”

Easy ways to make your playground friendlier

  • Teach routes to buddy bus stops and toilets.
  • Highlight key landmarks and changes in level.
  • Remind classmates to say when they’re going away so that a child with vision impairment doesn't end up talking to thin air.
  • Make sure children know about cake sales, lunchtime clubs and one-off opportunities.

Resources

Your local visual impairment service can put you in touch with a habilitation specialist who can support a child with important independence and social skills.  

You can also find a list of habilitation specialists on the Habilitation UK website 

Check out the audible sports balls  you can get from RNIB. Our range includes balls for football, rugby, cricket and basketball.

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