12 Ways to Inclusive Festive Fun: How to Celebrate the Holidays with Your Child Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired – Part 1
Monday November 22, 2021
When a child has vision loss from retinoblastoma, highly visual aspects of this Holiday Season can be challenging, exclusionary and isolating. But a little thought and creative adaptation can completely change the experience. In part 1 of this 2-part blog, bilateral Rb Survivor, Abby White, shares 12 ways to include blind and visually impaired children in traditional Holiday activities.
This Holiday Season is alight with celebration for many people around the world. Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Yule, and the Winter Solstice. Others simply wish to chase away the gloom of the year’s shortest, darkest days with conviviality and fun, a warm sense of nostalgia, and childlike magic.
Many ceremonies and traditions of this season are highly visual. Their central elements of vivid colour and light are rooted in centuries-old desire to counter the darkness of long nights and cold, short days around the winter solstice.
A religious, spiritual, or magical experience can quickly become isolating for a child or adult who is blind or visually impaired. But captivating inclusion is possible with thoughtful planning. In this two-part blog, I share 12 simple ways to ensure an inclusive celebration with common traditions of the season.
Many of these suggestions are drawn from my experience growing up with limited sight, in a family universally affected by sight loss – my father lost both eyes to retinoblastoma, while my mother and sister have significant visual impairment.
1. Christmas Tree
Whether my parents chose a richly aromatic natural tree, or a convenient artificial model, this always formed the centrepiece of decorations in our home. Installing and decorating the tree was a time of family fun; the first whispers of a joyful season ahead –Christmas brought more anticipation to our home as Christmas Eve was also my father’s birthday, a celebration his wide community of friends shared in.
Choose multi-sensory tree decorations that your blind or low vision family member can engage with. For example, perennial ornaments on our family tree included bells that jingled or tinkled, a carved wooden sleigh bearing a velvet coated Santa, glittery long icicles, and baubles covered in different materials and sequin patterns.
Tree lights were very important to all of us – my father included. Though totally blind, he took so much pleasure in helping to hang the lights because of the delight they brought to his family, especially when my sister and I were very young.
Tree decorating experts advise placing lights about 8-10 inches apart to create a balanced look that doesn’t overwhelm other decorations, or cause the lights to disappear in the branches. Another common recommendation is to aim for around 100 lights per 1ft of tree – this may be particularly useful if buying a pre-lit tree.
Whether you use a real or artificial tree, try to plan a family outing to a Christmas tree farm. You can experience the beauty of rooted, growing trees with all your senses, and explore trees of different shapes and sizes, scents and textures. Tree farms increasingly offer educational tours and attractions, describing their process and conservation efforts.
Decorating our homes is one of the most anticipated parts of this season; we create splendid cornucopias of light and colour to dissolve the cold, winter gloom. With a little thought, decorations and the decorating process can be a wonderfully multi-sensory experience for the entire family.
Think about how your decorations can stimulate each of the five senses. Wherever possible, use natural elements, as they will be more likely to carry a scent and have a vibrant texture to explore. Examples of multisensory decorations include:
- Scent: real tree/garlands/wreath, fresh baked decorations, mistletoe.
- Touch: Natural materials, different textures, 3D sculpted characters.
- Taste: Gingerbread, peppermint and orange flavour treats for the tree or table.
- Sound: Bells, wind chimes, ornaments that speak, sing, or play music.
- Sight: Bright, bold colours. Contrast. Fairy lights, light-up decorations, candles.
Bake your own scented decorations with your child, like these super-simple peppermint star ornaments. Perhaps turn your decorations into a fun braille lesson or a message of love by adding a braille letter to each bake – like these apple cinnamon braille ornaments.
Involve your child in unwrapping decorations from storage, choosing where to place them, and helping to put them on display. Their participation may give you new insight – for example, which items they favour and why. Place some decorations within your child’s reach, with a clear access path, so they can enjoy them at their leisure throughout the season, just as you do with your eyes.
Talk with your child about safety when handling decorations. For example, glass ornaments may shatter explosively when squeezed hard or dropped, and traditional metal ornament hooks can cause serious injury to both humans and pets. If you are using such ornaments, explain to your child why it is important to never play with them, or run when holding them, and demonstrate how to carefully wrap the hook securely onto the tree or garland – ask your child to show you how they hang the ornament, to confirm they have understood the process.
I made these tree ornaments as part of a community Christmas tree festival project. I painted polystyrene eggs in acrylic antique gold, and used gem stickers as a tactile embellishment.
3. Holiday Gifts
Engage your child in the entire process of gift-giving, from making their list of recipients and brainstorming potential gift ideas to buying, wrapping and delivering presents. Each step helps build valuable life skills, including planning, thinking about what other people like and experience, budgeting, shopping and handling money, presentation and labelling, and appreciation.
Some planning with your child can be helpful before the gift-wrapping session, to decide how they will identify gifts to distribute them. My mother often used a different type of wrapping paper for each person in our family, to help visually identify gifts quickly, as well as brailling labels she could read.
Make the gift-wrapping experience more enjoyable for your child by choosing gift bags or wrap with textured finishes or embellishments. Or have a decorating session to adapt store-bought giftwrap into your own unique creations using items like tactile stickers and embellishments, glitter, flock, or puffy paint. Stickers and embellishments can be easily added after wrapping, but decoration involving glue and 3D paint should be done before wrapping.
If your child is a braille reader, invite them to write their gift tags in braille, along with a print transcription. This enables your child to independently identify gifts when distributing them, and creates a quiet opportunity for recipients to learn a little braille.
4. Sensory Shopping
In the years before COVID hit the world, my dear friend Ffion and I began a tradition of visiting the Christmas market at Blenheim Palace, after touring the illuminations and fairy tale adventure within the palace (more of this in part 2). It will hardly be a surprise that our favourite stalls involved decadent fudge tasting, supping of seasonal spirits, cooing over delightfully soft hand-woven scarves, and imaginative ornaments crafted from natural materials.
This is a glorious time to stroll through the shops and Christmas markets, beautifully decked in magical displays of colour and light. But “window shopping” can be quickly tiring for someone with limited or no sight. So don’t use your eyes only – go “sensory shopping”, and immerse yourselves in the magic.
Take time to explore the displays and the items on sale with your child using all possible senses.
Are the items hard, soft, rough, smooth, big, small? Do they feature recognisable patterns or characters?
What scents can you smell? Young children may need help matching scents to items they recognise. If displays incorporate live or natural elements, point these out, and draw attention to the potential scent.
While it is not appropriate to lick or eat display items, if can be educational to discuss what familiar edible items taste like. A chance for your child to match physical items with their lived experience and growing knowledge.
If you have not explored taste differences with your child before, this may be a fun, opportunity. Offer your child a range of different tastes, and talk together about how they are different, and why. For example, chips taste salty, oranges taste tangy and slightly bitter, while iced cookies taste sweet.
What sounds can you hear? What instruments can you recognise in the music? If an item or attraction makes a sound generated through a user’s action, help your child identify and perform the action, and encourage them to describe the resulting sound.
What do you see – colours, lights, shapes, patterns, characters? Do you prefer the flashing lights or static (the ones that stay the same all the time)? Which colours are your favourites and why?
Asking questions like this can reveal valuable information to support your child beyond the Holidays. For example, a parent unexpectedly learned that her son could see objects more clearly in blue light, while yellow light made him “feel angry and upset” because the intensity hurt his eyes.
5. Advent Calendar
Advent calendars count down the days through December until Christmas Eve. Many commercial options exist. Traditional calendars feature a picture behind a numbered door, but every year, the options become more diverse and elaborate. From your favourite chocolates to Harry Potter adventures, themed calendars feature imaginative 3D elements and interactive objects behind each door.
Some calendars have pockets, cloth bags strung on a rope, or small boxes that enable you to place items inside for your child to discover. You can even invite your child to place something inside every day to give away, as my family did one year. These offer scope for braille or tactile labelling, and creative reuse in future years.
These Advent gift bags show how numbered embelishments can be made tactile in different ways. Here, the shaped wooden tags have raised numbers, while the foam stickers have cut-out numbers. Both sets, and similar, can be found on Amazon.
For some years, my sister and I both had a chimney stack of 24 blue boxes, a little bigger than matchboxes. The day’s number was printed in a gold star on the side of the box, seen through a window in the front of the chimney stack. As the boxes were stacked in order, the latest one resting in an opening at the bottom, this was very easy for someone with low or no vision to manage.
You can also create your own tactile Advent Calendar matching game, helping children to learn to read numbers and words in large print and/or braille.
You will need:
- The Calendar: something on which to hang each day’s ornaments – anything from a cork board to a small Christmas tree will be fine.
- 24 different objects – one for each day.
- Tape and strong thread or ribbon to create hangers for each object.
- 24 small tags.
- 2 containers – one for the tags and one for the objects.
How to Create the Advent Calendar Matching Game
- Label each of the 24 tags in large print and/or braille with a number from 1-24, and the name or description of one of the objects.
- Place the labels in one container and the objects in another.
- Every day, invite your child to find the tag with the day’s date, and discover the corresponding object, then identify the object from the other container, and hang it on the “calendar”.
Candle lighting is a key ceremony throughout Hanukkah and Advent, and important to other festivals too. When I was young, my father directed the lighting of our family Advent wreath every Sunday until Christmas with great reverence. Through this process, he also taught my sister and I to light candles safely when we were around 8-10 years old.
The age at which children are introduced to candle-lighting varies – this is for individual families to decide, assessing the child’s ability to participate safely. Remembering my own experience, I write the following with a child of 8-10 or older in mind.
Children who are blind or severely sight impaired are often excluded from candle-lighting ceremonies, either because of misguided belief that they won’t want to engage with the visual spectacle, or due to fear of accidental fires and injuries. But with common sense safety education, and careful instruction, they can be as involved as their sighted peers.
Step 1 below should be taught from the earliest possible age as part of basic fire safety education. Steps 3 and 4 can be gradually introduced over time before actively teaching a child to light candles with your help.
Teaching and reinforcing candle safety awareness is key for all children. Remind your child often that lighters and matches are not toys and they must never be used without parent supervision. Explain why, and ask children to explain to you, to confirm they understand. Always store matches and lighters securely out of children’s reach, and teach them to tell you if they find a match, lighter or unattended candle. and
Before lighting candles with your child, go through the process yourself in the dark, or with your eyes closed. Focus on each step, and any specific details you need to tell your child – taking notes may be helpful. For example, to describe my lighter, I might say: “Push up the flat ridged button on the left side under your thumb to open the gas valve. Do not touch the slider on the top – pushing that to the right will make the flame bigger, which we don’t want to do”.
If necessary, describe the candleholder and candles to your child, as they explore with their hands. Encourage multisensory exploration with questions like: does it smell of anything? What sounds does it make, if any?
Before your child lights a candle, it may be helpful for them to place a hand over your hand while you light the candle, so they form a sense of the process. To do this, have your child sit alongside you so their hands are facing the same way as yours. Give them clear verbal cues as you go through each candle-lighting step. You and your child may wish to remain at this step for some time before progressing, or your child may feel this offers sufficient involvement for them.
Introduce your child to the lighting implement. I recommend a long nose candle/utility lighter as the flame will be furthest from your child’s hand, and it will shut off immediately if they let go. Child-lock versions are also available. If you use matches, I advise using taper safety matches, which are significantly longer than standard matches.
Explain how the flame is created, and the whoosh sound generated at ignition. Demonstrate this so your child can experience the sound – a child who is unprepared for this sound may become afraid. You may wish to include this in step 3, even if your child is not ready to handle the tools directly, so they become familiar with the sound.
Under full supervision, let your child explore the lighter or match with their hands. Tell them not to press any buttons on the lighter until you give specific instructions. Hand your child the match and the box separately for this exploration step.
To demonstrate and assist with the lighting, sit either behind or alongside your child, so your hands are facing the same way, and place your hands over your child’s hands. Your hands will serve as the guide, while your child holds and operates the lighter, following your instructions. As your child builds mastery in each step of the process, you can lift your hands above your child’s, or slide them back along the forearms. Keeping your hands close enables you to step in quickly if your child needs help.
Don’t push your child if they express fear or hesitation. Especially with candles, safety and confidence is paramount. Do ask about and discuss their concerns – conversation may identify a problem that can easily be resolved. They may need more time to explore the tools, or get used to the ignition sound. Or they may need more reassurance that the process is safe.
Your child will need repeated demonstration and instruction, and all children need supervision when lighting candles, and regular reminders about fire safety. They may master this process well, or they may always need help lighting candles. But they can certainly be included in the process.
Light Up Braille
Lighting, positioning, and repositioning of tea light candles can be a fun seasonal way to teach basic braille to children with a little sight, as well as sighted siblings and adult relatives and friends. To do this activity safely with children, I recommend only using battery operated tea lights.
These tealights spell out the words LIGHT and HOPE in braille. I recommend only using battery operated tealights for this activity with children.
Join us for part 2 of this article, in which we visit Santa’s grotto, hang a treasured stocking, and have fun with Holiday cooking, seasonal stories, and sensory play, and explore some magical events.
About the Author
Abby’s father was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma in Kenya in 1946. Abby was also born with cancer in both eyes. She has an artificial eye and limited vision in her left eye that is now failing due to late effects of radiotherapy in infancy.
Abby studied geography at university, with emphasis on development in sub-Saharan Africa. She co-founded WE C Hope with Brenda Gallie, responding to the needs of one child and the desire to help many in developing countries. After receiving many requests for help from American families and adult survivors, she co-founded the US chapter to bring hope and encourage action across the country.
Abby enjoys listening to audio books, creative writing, open water swimming and long country walks.