As parents, we are often out in public with our children whether at the playground, going to the library, or even just the grocery store. I’ll admit I still sometimes feel a little anxious before and during such outings because I worry about keeping track of my children and keeping them safe, but I don’t want my anxiety to ever limit my children’s experiences. This is also a question I’m often asked by other blind moms and even sighted friends. So, I thought I’d share a couple of general strategies I use with my children to keep track of them. I do some things differently depending on how old my children are at the time, and where exactly it is that we are going, but hopefully these are generic enough to apply to a variety of circumstances. (By the way, my children are 5 and 2 and I’ve been using these techniques with both of them since they became mobile.)
1. Bells on shoes: This is such a great technique and definitely one for use at home as well. From the time my children became mobile, we put bells on them in some fashion. You would be surprised how much of a difference it makes and how valuable a strategy it is for keeping track of young children, especially when they are not very verbal yet. If you have a child who is prone to ditching his/her shoes, you may want to consider attaching a second pair of bells on a belt loop or button hole. I’ve even used a bell bracelet as an anklet that is on tight enough so as to not slide off the child’s foot—great for times when your child isn’t wearing shoes like at the pool or beach.
2. Helicopter Mom: This is probably the best strategy for young toddlers, and children who are not very verbal yet or whom you don’t feel you can let stray a bit from you yet. If you want to know where your children are, you need to be with your children. Yes, it would be nice sometimes to sit back on the bench at the park and chat with other parents or read a book while your children play and only have to occasionally look up to see where your children are, but unfortunately we don’t have that ability although sometimes the bells do allow for this to some extent. But, on the positive side, this allows us to engage with our children, teach them, explore with them, and fosters a closer relationship with them when we are engaging and interacting with them. And, your children love having your attention! This means following them onto the big toy, or standing near-by underneath it to monitor where they are playing, sitting down on the side of the sandbox, or doing puzzles with them at the library. Some critics may argue that you are hovering or being too over-protective, but I’d rather err on the side of being a little too over protective rather than not know where and what my child is doing. I also don’t want to always have to rely on others to keep track of my children for me. Yes, there may be the occasional need to ask a by stander if they spot your child if he/she has gotten away from you, but I try to minimize these times, especially when it comes to relying on other parent friends with whom you are hanging out. You want to avoid placing any question in another’s mind about your abilities as a blind parent. I’ve also found in my own experience that as your child gets older, you are able to pull back on how much you need to hover.
3. Previewing the Area and Setting up Camp: Before turning my children loose to play when we are out somewhere, I often survey the area first before letting them go play freely. This gives me a chance to become familiar with the space before I have to turn my focus to keeping track of them. It also allows me to determine any boundaries I may want to set for them, and I can also designate names for the given areas for us all to use so that we are on the same page about where they are going to be playing. For example, “the big kids’ big toy,” “the little kids’ big toy,” and the sand box, etc. This way, if my children are old enough to play without me following or hovering behind them, they can tell me which area they are going to be in and they know not to leave the area without telling me where they are going. I can also periodically check on them as I feel I need to. Previewing the area can also help you to determine the best area to “camp out” so to speak instead of frequently making rounds if your children are playing in different areas. For example, maybe you want to hang out by an exit to make sure they don’t slip passed you, or at a kind of mid-point so that you can keep tabs on a couple of different places at the same time. This strategy is probably best when you feel like you can give your children a bit more freedom and trust them to answer you when you call.
4. Border Patrol or “Making the Rounds”: This strategy builds on the previous one, but instead of staying in one central place, it can be very helpful to make rounds between the different places where your children are, or just walk the perimeter frequently to keep track of them and what they are doing. This will also keep you visible and engaged in their activities and they will be more likely to check in with you when they are moving to a new location or activity.
5. Marco Polo Technique: Most of us are familiar with the pool game “Marco Polo” in which one person yells “Marco” and the others who are trying to avoid being tagged yell “Polo.” This technique works much the same way and is pretty self-explanatory. From an early age I started training my children that when I called them, they needed to answer me, even if I was close to them. This is my nonvisual way of “spotting” them. If they didn’t answer me, there was a consequence of a time out or loss of a privilege, etc. Because I started this early on, it’s become second nature for my children to answer me. If I’m just calling them to see where they are, I’ll answer by saying something in reply to them like, “Just checking to see where you were,” and “thanks for answering me.” I give them a couple of chances to answer me too before there is a consequence just in case they are not paying attention, or cannot hear me because I’m too far away or because of other noise. You may even want to use a code name for outings, or nick name that your children are used to you calling them so as not to share your child’s name with strangers if that makes you concerned or uncomfortable.
6. Boundaries and review of rules and consequences: This again is pretty self-explanatory, and maybe not technically a strategy, but something to keep in mind. Before turning my children lose to play, I remind them how important it is that they answer me when I call them and that they stick to the boundaries and other rules we have for outings. I sometimes will physically walk the boundaries with them and show them where they can go so there is no misunderstandings, especially since I can’t exactly point to what I’m talking about and be sure they follow. The important thing is to be consistent with consequences so you’re your children do not take advantage of your lack of sight and try to get away with things. Again, the earlier you can start training them in this practice, the better.
7. Child Harnesses: Child Harnesses: I used to think this was a terrible thing and vowed never to use one of those child harnesses http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2/185-7236510-1484769?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=child+harness+ or backpack or wrist leashes and treat my child like a dog, but when I had an active, mobile toddler, I soon reconsidered. Most of these kind of devices come like a harness or backpack the child wears around their chest. Children like them because of the colorful styles, some of which look like you’re wearing an animal on your back, and the range of the leash lets them venture away from you a bit and explore while you still have control of where they are. Obviously, these work best for very young children who are not yet good at staying with you, hanging on to your hand, or responding consistently when called. One down side however that I found with these was how often my child or I would get tangled in the leash. I would find myself tripping over it as my toddler ducked in and around my legs, or that it interfered with my cane, so there are some drawbacks to consider, but there are definitely some places and times when these can come in handy, especially in really crowded areas.
8. Child/luggage locators: Much like what you put on your keys, there are a variety of audio sound producing devices that are made specifically for children. (Most blind and/low vision people are familiar with luggage locators ) Basically, you attach a transmitter device to your child and you keep the remote. You can actually find child locators that come in different styles like an animal face which you can attach to your child. When you press the remote, the transmitter portion emits a loud noise letting you know where your child is. These have a fairly long range and can be very useful with children when in areas that are extremely noisy (like a children’s museum or Chuck E. Cheese place) or for a wide open park. I generally use these as an “in case of an emergency” tool because they emit a loud, piercing sound and can draw a lot of attention to your child even in a noisy place. Sometimes when going to a place with a lot of environmental noise or that is more spread out, I will attach these to my children because it is harder for me to hear them or their bells. In these places, I generally use the “helicopter mom” method for the most part, but I like the security of the locators just in case.
9. Corralling/Timer Technique: This technique is again useful if you have more than one child. When in an area that has a number of different places to play, you can corral your children into one room/playground and set a rule that everyone is going to play in that area for a given time. This will give you a smaller space to need to monitor and be an easier way to monitor all your children at the same time. If you have children who want to play in different areas, you can take turns in each by setting a timer on your phone that will tell you all when it’s time to rotate to the next place.
10. Know how to describe your children: This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a little thing we may forget from time to time. If you have older children who can choose and dress themselves, it’s a good idea to ask them what they are wearing in case you need to describe them. With younger children whom you still dress, make sure you know what color their shirt, etc. is, or if it has a picture or logo on it. Often as blind people, we identify clothes by feel or style, but may not always think about the color or pattern—just that we know it matches something else, especially when it’s not our own clothing. Knowing these kind of details can help you if you are in a situation where your child gets lost from you and you do need to enlist the help of a sighted person to locate them.
Well, there you have it. I hope these may be helpful to some of you. Whether it’s keeping track of your own children, nieces and nephews, or children you are babysitting, I hope these will be useful. I’d also love to hear what other techniques you use for keeping track of your children nonvisually.