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Inclusive play and playgrounds for children with vision impairment

How can schools make playgrounds an easier place for pupils with vision impairment?

“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, John Rous-Milligan 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 practical issues.

So what can schools do to make a difference?

We have four ways you can make a playground more accessible and encourage inclusive play, as well as some playground games to try out.

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.

Inclusive playground games all children can enjoy

Unstructured or informal times at school, such as breaks and lunch time, can present issues for children with vision impairment (VI). Though they are often the times that school children look forward to most. So, it’s important to try and create the natural social and play opportunities that break times can offer.

Adult support is a key factor.

Getting the balance between essential support of a child to ensure safety and wellbeing, and standing back to make sure they can chat and play with their peers independently, needs careful thought.

Awareness and support from the class as a whole can help create fun and inclusive play time for children with vision impairment and their sighted friends.

Getting the space right

A good starting point would be to enable the pupil to explore the playground with a teacher or habilitation officer with no one else there.

An environmental audit from a habilitation specialist would also be useful to identify any obstacles, edges or steps that could be highlighted and any hazards that could be changed or improved.

Remember that children with photophobia may benefit from wearing caps or glasses when they play outside.

A ‘buddy stop’ or ‘buddy bench’ where a child can go so other children know they’re looking for playmates can work well. It might be useful to do an additional induction if this was introduced, so sighted children know to introduce themselves if they go to play with a child with vision impairment. You could also work on finding the buddy stop as an independent mobility target.

Can you create a place where a child with VI can safely run around?

Many hard-surface playgrounds or spaces with obstacles or clutter may not be suitable for encouraging this, but if there is a grassed area or school field, being able to run without fear of falling or bumping would be a great physical opportunity.

A designated safe area, perhaps with a table (like a picnic table with solid benches attached) can work well, so table-top games can be played. For example Connect 4 or draughts, where you can drill holes in one colour of pieces to tell them apart, or dominoes. Playground staff can set up a game for a small group, so friends can play together but with background adult supervision.

RNIB has other games in the Online Shop. Braille or large print bingo could also be a game a group of friends can play, as long as the child with VI had a bingo card in their reading format.

Toys and activities

  • Skipping ropes and hoops can be enjoyed by both sighted children and children with VI. They can either skip individually or the child with VI could hold the rope for a group skipping game.
  • Giant Jenga is tactile and often popular, as is Giant Connect 4 – again, adapt one set of pieces if necessary.
  • An audible ball might also be a useful investment.
  • Bowling can be set up if you adapt the skittles to be audible, so the child with VI receives a sound reward/cue when they’re knocked over. A simple way to do this is to make skittles out of large soft-drink bottles. You can fill the bottles with sand and use bells or something similar that will sound when they fall. Sighted children could help the child with VI know which direction to bowl and provide commentary.
  • A tandem trike is a good idea for a child who has VI to ride with a sighted friend. The trike could form part of a range of single-child trikes so all the children feel included.

Remember that playing is part of the staple developmental diet of any child – and just as important as everything else that happens at school.

More 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.