It is my opinion that there are five essential elements needed for a successful playground: swings, monkey bars, a big toy (complete with slide), kickball field, and tetor-tautor. Without these elements a playground is just, well…not as great as it could be. Similarly, there are five elements for success which I believe help blind individuals to be great. They are qualities which parents and teachers should help foster in blind children to help them navigate life’s playgrounds as successfully as possible. Over the next few posts, I will be introducing you to all five of these elements. So, here is our third element.
I’ve spent a lot of time since my daughter was born going to playgrounds around the area, and in this time, I’ve come to observe two things: one,there is always at least one big toy located right smack in the heart of the playground,, and two, it’s always crawling with children no matter what time of day you go. Even the little rinky-dink playground down the street from me (hardly worthy of being called such seeing as it has no grass, no swings, and no shade) has a big toy and it also usually has a handful of children playing on it. These big toys are like little social hot spots for children much like clubs or restaurants are for adults except that happy hour usually takes place between 9 a.m. and Noon.
So what does any of this have to do with blindness? Let me explain. Big toys are the one place on the playground where children have to interact with each other. Think about it. Children can swing alone, bounce a ball alone, jump rope alone, or sit on the grass alone, but on the big toy, it’s pretty hard not to interact with others. Even if a child really wants to play solo on a big toy, there is still a minimal level of interaction which has to take place there with other children whether it’s turn-taking on the slide or passing by someone on the bridge. Even when children are playing alone, it usually doesn’t last long. Once I saw a child pretending that he was driving a boat with a large steering wheel only to see another unfamiliar child come up unsolicited and start playing with him. Frankly, interacting with others makes the whole big toy experience that much better. The other fascinating aspect to big toys is all the social learning and networking that takes place on them. Next time you are at a park, take a few minutes to observe the interactions between children and you’ll see what I mean. There are all these little interactions going on, rules being taught, knowledge being shared, and instructions being given on what is and is not acceptable; e.g., if you are not sharing, someone will call you out on it. If you are picking your nose, someone will tell you that is gross. Which brings us to our third element for success: blending in.
Blending in refers to one’s ability to fit in socially, or to behave in ways that are socially appropriate. Blending in is much bigger than hair styles, brand names, or the latest slang words. . If we want our blind children to make it on the playground, we have to make sure they know how to interact and play on the big toy with all the other kids. This means, knowing how to fit in socially with their peers and the world around them. . We have to help our children learn what is and is not socially appropriate and hold them to the same expectations we would any other child. The reality is that we live in a world where first impressions and visual observations prevail, and people are labeled for better or worse. WE want our children to be accepted and the kind of kid others want to hang out with because of who he or she is and not out of obligation to “be nice to the blind kid.” WE also want to prevent labels from being placed unfairly on our children as the “weird kid”, or “special kid.” WE want our children to feel comfortable playing on the playground rather than feeling relegated to play solo on the grass. So in order to help our children “blend in on the big toy”, we have to help them understand what social behaviors are appropriate or acceptable in various situations so that they at least have all the information available to them. Then if they choose to not adhere to some of these “social expectations, it will be for some other reason and not “just because they are blind and don’t know any better.” So, here are a few areas where we may want to pay attention to how our blind children interact or stack up to their peers. Keep in mind that we could go into much more detail about each of these things, but I’ll try to just hit some of the biggest aspects.
*Using Appropriate Table Manners:
Our blind children should be expected to use silverware appropriately, cut their own food (when age appropriate to do so like their peers do), feed themselves, and should know not to use their fingers (unless it’s a finger food) to locate food on their plates, or put food on a utensil. I’ve also observed some low vision individuals putting their face down right next to their plate so they can see what they are eating or so they can scoop food into their mouths easier—not good. All these practices look extremely weird to others and even a little gross sometimes. It doesn’t really send a positive message to one’s peers either. There are alternative techniques which can be used when eating without any vision and I encourage you to ask other blind people who you believe have good manners to help you in teaching your child. You may think, “What’s the harm if my child uses their fingers to find food on their plate instead of their fork, or if he/she puts her face a little closer? The issue is that this sends one of two messages to others around them. First, either others will think they do these things because they are blind and therefore aren’t equal to sighted people or as capable as sighted people–not a message we want to promote,, or second, it will result in our blind children being labeled as weird, messy, or different and maybe even ostracized. Let’s face it, as much as we like to hope that people are kind and altruistic, other kids aren’t going to want to “hang out” with someone whose food they have to cut for them, or want to be seen with the “weird kid” in the lunch room.
*Dress and Appearance:
Please keep in mind that I am not suggesting that our blind children have to be fashionistas or have the latest hair style, but it is important that their dress and grooming reflect what would be accepted by their peers—at least within reason. . Again, we want to make sure our children at least know what the options are, or how to find out what is or is not “in” so they can make their own decisions rather than the decision being made by default just because they are blind. For example, let’s say all the girls are wearing their hair in side pony tails. If your daughter was sighted, she would see this and then be able to make her own choice as to whether or not she wants to wear her hair this way. But, since she is blind, it is important that she learn to talk to her friends or siblings to find out what hairstyles are popular right now so she can still make her own decision. Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to trends is that knowing what trends are in also helps our children be able to communicate with their peers. For example, if all the girls in your daughters class are talking about how hot cat-eye sun glasses are and your daughter doesn’t know what this means, she will have a difficult time blending in with her peers since she can’t really be part of the conversation. You may have to help your child develop the skill of asking questions about these kinds of things with their peers. Another idea is to help your child research things they hear their friends or classmates talking about. This idea applies more to teens, but you may want to encourage your child to follow a fashion blog or review websites or articles to learn what the latest styles are in fashion, make up, or hair as these often give good verbal descriptions and sometimes step by step instructions. I noticed that my husband knows a lot about trends in athletic ware which are more mainstream in fashion right now because he hears about it from commentators when he watches ESPN even though he can’t see what people are wearing. It comes in handy for him sometimes in conversations with his friends too and they are impressed that he seems so “with it.”
Equally, it is important that we help teach our children concepts like what kinds of colors, patterns, and fabrics go together and which ones don’t, i.e., your daughter shouldn’t wear her Old Navy flag t-shirt with her pink and purple floral shorts, or your son might want to think twice before donning his knee-high socks when he’s wearing shorts, or white socks with his dark dress pants.
*Social Cues and Gestures:
This area can be a little tricky because sometimes we don’t know what our children don’t know or miss out on since we may take some of these things for granite. For example, I know of a blind adult who didn’t know that you raised your right hand to a forty-five degree angle when you made an oath on a Bible. He just knew you put your hand on the Bible and thought that was all. So, it is a good idea to watch for these kinds of things and then ask your child whether or not he knows what a specific gesture looks like. Other physical cues which are good for our children to know when trying to blend in include things like making eye contact, i.e., turning your face in the direction of a person speaking even if you can’t see them or their eyes, (you’d be surprised at the number of sighted people I hear who find this disconcerting when they talk to a blind person even though they know the person can’t see ), shaking hands, knowing how your arm looks when you are raising your hand in class, and shaking your head no or nodding yes just to name a few. One other thing I notice a lot is how many blind people don’t face a presenter when in a public event like an auditorium or hall. . Often, they turn towards where the sound is coming which may be the speaker off to their side rather than the podium, or else they droop their head down as if looking in their lap rather than facing towards the presenter. Again, you may wonder, “What’s the harm?” but as we live in a society which relies a great deal on body language as a form of communication, those kind of behaviors can often be misinterpreted as the person being uninterested, rude, or bored. Additionally, if all the participants in a crowd are looking one way, and your child is facing a different direction, they are going to stick out, and not always in a positive way.
*Blindisms or Self Stimulating Behaviors:
Blindisms are specific physical behaviors often demonstrated primarily by blind individuals. They include behaviors like rocking, eye poking, or head rolling (like from side to side or in a figure eight motion) to name a few. Often these behaviors are excused away by the public and even some professionals as acceptable “just because the person is blind.” But the bottom line is that these behaviors are unbecoming to an individual, look strange or weird to the sighted public, and again don’t send a great message about blindness to the general public. Think about whether or not you would allow these behaviors in your child if he or she were sighted. The answer is probably not, so we should hold the same expectations for our blind children. They really are just self stimulating behaviors usually demonstrated more frequently when a child is bored, upset, excited, or anxious. These behaviors are exhibited by a blind person much like sucking on one’s thumb, nail biting, chewing on your lip, or fidgeting are to other people. These habits can be corrected and replaced with more acceptable social behaviors with time and practice. Often with children, it is easy to create some kind of a secret word or prompt you can give your child when he or she starts engaging in one of these behaviors which can work as a trigger to remind them to stop this behavior as many times they are unaware that they are even doing it. If you are thinking that these practices really aren’t that big of a deal, let me briefly share two things. First, I know a young girl who engaged in eye poking so much when she was younger that she has permanently disfigured her eyes and face from this. Secondly, imagine your child as an adult sitting in a job interview. How do you think he is going to be perceived by his potential future employer if he is constantly rolling his head from side to side during a conversation? Especially if there is another equally qualified sighted guy sitting outside the door waiting for his turn?
Remember earlier when I referred to big toys as social hot spots for children? WE want to make sure our children have the tools and skills they need to blend in in these social hot spots whether it be in the classroom, scout group, sports team or on the school playground. It is in these settings where children have the opportunity to engage in so many more social learning experiences than we could ever provide them just at home. Ironically, it is through these kind of blending in on the “big toy” experiences where children ultimately discover the qualities that will later define them as an individual, and the skills that will aid them in making it on the ultimate playground—the real world.