When my son, Ivan, was two and a half we started looking into possible preschool placements for him. Ivan has an inherited retinal disease and was born totally blind, so we were looking for a childcare center that could accommodate his needs as a visually impaired student. As parents, we were of course very particular, but we also learned fairly quickly that what we were looking for was less the “perfect preschool” and more educators who were willing to learn and adapt.
Blindness is considered a low incident disability, particularly among infants and young children, so having a blind student in a mainstream preschool may be a new experience for educators and staff. However, there are many ways a classroom can adapt to meet the needs of a blind preschooler, even if the staff has not been formally trained to teach visually impaired children.
We talked to Ivan’s new teachers and we discovered four areas that were most important to creating a safe and inviting environment for children with visual impairments.
1. Focus on hands-on learning
As with most young learners, blind preschoolers thrive with hands-on learning. The good news is that many preschool activities are already very hands-on! Multi-sensory lesson plans benefit all children in the classroom and don’t generally require any alternate teaching materials or specialized equipment, but are still very accessible to kids who are visually impaired.
One thing to keep in mind is to use real experiences and real materials whenever possible. For example, when working on a unit about apples, bring in real apples for children to touch and taste. This will allow blind children to better understand what is being taught by interacting with actual objects and will also add a new dimension to the lesson for all children.
2. Adapt materials when needed
Many preschool materials, like building blocks, sensory tables, or play-doh, are perfectly accessible to children who are blind. Realistically, you shouldn’t need to change much about the current materials or classroom activities in order to provide access for visually impaired children.
If you are worried about reading material, no, you don’t need to know braille. If a child is expected to be a braille reader, they will have access to a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) who will instruct them in their braille learning. However, investing in a few print/braille books is still a great idea! Print/braille books, also called twin vision books, have both print and braille (and usually pictures as well) so both sighted and blind readers can learn together. Exposing sighted children to braille is also a great way to teach them about diversity! American Printing House for the Blind and National Braille Press are two excellent places to find print/braille picture books.
Some other things to consider may be adding raised lines to pictures (just use puffy paint or glue to create an outline your children can feel), using high contrast materials or creating large print handouts for children with low vision, or adding textures to toys or picture books.
You can also think about the language you use in the classroom. Consider using precise directions, such as “the ball is in the basket to the right of the bookshelf” rather than “the ball is over there.” Narrating your actions as the educator can also be helpful for children who can’t see. For example, you may say “I am going to walk over to Simon and hand him this book so he can point at the picture of the red square.”
3. Teach early orientation and mobility skills
If you’re unfamiliar with Orientation & Mobility (O&M) you may be wondering how blind children will be able to move around in the classroom. O&M skills help children make sense of their surroundings and navigate safely in familiar environments. Visually impaired children are generally eligible for services through a certified Orientation & Mobility specialist, so you will most likely be able to consult with someone who can assist in making your room O&M friendly.
Help your blind children orient themselves within the classroom by pointing out constant sounds. It may be a good idea to purchase a small water fountain and keep it next to the main exit to the classroom so it can be used as a directional sound cue. Also, try to keep furniture and items in the class in the same spot! If there are changes in the room setup, be sure to let your visually impaired children know.
When moving around outside or between classes, offer your hand or wrist to a blind child to hold on to while they walk. This is called sighted guide and is a common skill blind walkers use even as adults.
4. Help sighted children adjust to a blind classmate
As a preschool educator, you are used to having to assist children in developing appropriate social interactions. Children are extremely open-minded and it takes just a bit of encouragement to get sighted children comfortable around visually impaired children. For example, you can prompt them to identify themselves by name, so instead of saying “Hi!” they can learn to say “Hi Andrea, it’s me, Simon!”
Also, don’t treat blind children differently. Sighted children will notice if their blind peers aren’t held to the same rules and restrictions and they will think this is unfair. It will also teach them to treat people with disabilities differently, rather than encouraging them to include disabled children in their social play.
Facilitate social interactions and help your child who is blind make connections with other children as it may be difficult to get friendships started without vision. But then step back and let them play!
Early education resources for teaching blind children
- The Oregon Project for Preschool Children who are Blind or Visually Impaired: This is the standard evaluation rubric for children who are blind and will most likely be used by any blind child’s educational team.
- Including Children with Visual Impairments in the Early Childhood Classroom by Danene K. Fast: Published in 2018, this chapter in the book Early Childhood Education is designed for educators with little to no experience working with children with visual impairments.
- Environmental Adaptations for Preschool Classrooms Serving Children who are Blind or Visually Impaired: Paths to Literacy offers realistic adaptions that could be implemented in any preschool setting.
- 12 Easy Tips for Accessible Preschool Arts & Crafts for Kids who are Blind or Visually Impaired: All children should have access to arts and crafts, and this is also true for children who are blind or visually impaired!
To learn more about early childhood education and the many influences that make the field what it is today, check out our post on the history of early childhood education.