20 Outdoor Activities for Blind and Visually Impaired Children
Monday July 19, 2021
Nearly all children with retinoblastoma have some degree of sight loss arising from the cancer and its treatment. Identifying outdoor activities they can fully engage with may be hard for families. Bilateral Rb Survivor, Abby White, shares 20 classic and creative activities that include blind and visually impaired children and help connect them with the natural world.
What do you have planned for this summer to help your child explore the natural world? This is a perfect time to engage the senses, get a bumper dose of Vitamin N, and develop new skills and confidence through play.
A little creativity and thoughtful adaptations will ensure children with sight loss are included in play and can connect deeply with nature. They nurture curiosity, and open up worlds of knowledge and exploration that sighted children absorb without even realising. We hope some of the following suggestions will help you and your child enjoy a deeper connection with nature this summer.
Connect with the Elements
1. Plant Something
Growing shrubs, flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits such as tomato plants is a great way to learn about nature, and where food comes from. Gardening is a wonderfully tactile learning activity for blind and visually impaired children.
Involve your child in choosing the plants, bubs or seeds, and deciding the best place to plant them, explaining the options and reasons for each. Children can participate in every step of the gardening process, including digging, planting, and watering. Explain each step verbally, and guide your child’s hands as needed to help them understand.
2. Visit a Farm
A super active place to learn about plants and animals. Many farms have summer open days with family-friendly activities. Some have year-round farmyard attractions where children can gain hands-on experience of the animals, big tractors, and farm processes.
Pick-your-own farms are a great option for hands-on learning about seasonal fruits and vegetables. Children with some sight may be able to use visual cues to identify ripe produce. Other children may need to learn tactile techniques, such as the firmness or scent – ask the farmers or pickers for guidance on multi-sensory cues for the particular produce on offer.
3. Buy of Make a Wind Chime
Differing wind speed and direction can be seen from indoors as the breeze moves through greenery and blows items about. People with sight loss miss this information. A wind chime can be a beautifully relaxing and fun way for children to learn about wind, and how it changes throughout a single day and year-round.
There is a wide range of carefully crafted and perfectly tuned options available. Understanding the structure, and how different materials and sizes produce different sounds will help you find the perfect chime for your child and family. This is a super chime buying guide with some top suggestions, including audio examples.
Place a wind chime near the door or window you have open most often. This could be used as an auditory signal to locate the area, but it will go silent if there is no wind. Explain to your child that the chime may go silent, and ask them to explain the reason why, to demonstrate their understanding of action and reaction.
4. Fly a Kite
How do children learn the scientific concepts of flight when they will never see a bird or plane take off, land, or fly through the air? The simple joy of flying a kite is one wonderful way to connect with and explore the world, understand some of these processes, and nurture a sense of awe.
Build your own kite as a family, or buy a pre-made one with an easy-to manage reel control. Making the kite with your child gives them the opportunity to learn about its structure and aerodynamics, but you can also explore and discuss the structure of a purchased kite with your child before flying it. Look for kites with audible tails, or add your own to help your child keep track of the kite in flight.
Review kite flying safety with your child. Ensure you choose a safe open area, far from electricity and telephone lines and other dangerous obstructions – reinforce to your child why this is so important; children with sight loss who want to fly their kite independently won’t be able to see power lines and judge that an area is safe.
Together with your child, set the kite flying, then guide your child in how to control its flight. Gradually let go of the control until your child is in confident full control. Encourage your child to focus on the experience of managing the controls, the sensation of the kite pulling against the reel, and the sound of material buffeting and the tail jingling in the wind overhead. If your child is confident with the action of flying the kite, or later if they need to focus on the controls, talk together about what your child experienced, and how their concept of flight has evolved.
5. Toast Marshmallows
A classic summer activity that all children can have fun experiencing, regardless of visual disability. Take special care to orient your child around the area, and specify safety rules to all children present. Ask the children to explain the rules to you, so you know they have been understood. Use long-handled toasting forks that enable all children to stay well away from the fire, and assist as needed.
6. Enjoy a Fireworks Display
The bright lights set against a dark sky make fireworks displays particularly visually stimulating and fun when children have some sight. However, without a commentary, the loud hisses, whizzes, crackles and bangs may be disorienting and distressing for a blind or visually impaired child, or simply boring.
A quality description of fireworks will help bring the spectacle to life for children with sight-loss, and give context to the potentially frightening soundtrack. Think about the language you can use to describe different fireworks, including their colours, movement and changing shape, and where they are in relation to the familiar environment.
7. Take a Boat Trip
Young children with limited or no sight often have a hard time understanding that water in rivers, lakes and oceans is constantly moving. Being “on” the water allows them to feel the motion that others can see. From rowing or paddle boating on a city lake, to sailing on the open ocean, there are so many ways to experience the ebb and flow of water beneath the boat.
Giving several boating opportunities in different environments enables the child to compare and contrast their experience. For example, punting or riding a gondola on a quiet, shallow river feels very different from canoeing in a sheltered cove, which in turn feels different from taking a fast ferry across open water.
Orientation and safety education is especially important for children with sight-loss – refresh general water safety with each new experience, and teach rules specific to that activity. However, there is no reason why blind and visually impaired children can’t participate in boating activities. This is a great time of year to take an aquatic adventure. Look for hands-on opportunities that will maximize their experience.
8. Make a Water Obstacle Course
On hot summer days, an aquatic obstacle course can be a wonderfully fun way to cool down, especially if infection control restrictions mean you can’t visit water parks and pools. With your child, brainstorm all the materials you can use, such as garden sprinkler, paddling pool or very large bowls, face cloths, plastic cups for pouring, clean squirt bottles or water guns, sponge balls, hula hoops, pool noodles, garden furniture and toys.
Help your child use their imagination to plan, and set up the obstacle course, then orient and support them around the full course if needed. This video may give you some activity station ideas for the obstacle course.
Children enjoy water play at the Sally Test Paediatric Centre in Eldoret, Kenya.
Stimulate the Senses
9. Sensory Play
In our June 2018 article on our blog, child life specialist Jocelyn Leworthy, describes how playfully engaging the senses aids development in babies and young children:
“As children grow, they also acquire more complex skills through sensory experiences. For example, when playing with sensory materials like water, play dough, blocks; sand etc., they begin to develop fine motor skills – use of the small muscles in the hands. This is achieved through molding, manipulating, stacking, grasping, pouring etc.
“Children learn about concepts like cause and effect when their play involves complete actions like pouring, mixing, stacking and moving. They also learn about physical properties (shape/size/colour/texture), and conservation. Through exploring with the materials, they also develop foundation skills for math and science, including measurement, observing physical changes when materials are mixed or altered, and making comparisons. Sensory experiences also promote imaginative play and encourage social development like turn taking, sharing, and perspective taking when other children are involved.
“In summary, the senses play a critical role in a child’s holistic development, and their ability to make sense of the world around them. As a parent or caregiver, there are endless opportunities to engage the senses through fun, stimulating interactions and experiences. Take time to try some new approaches today.”
For a simple sensory play experience, half fill a washing-up bowl with water and provide a selection of silicone or plastic utensils and containers for play. Encourage your child to experiment with the equipment. Make their play even more interesting by adding new items to explore, like ice cubes dyed with food colouring, or natural materials that respond to water in different ways, such as a sea sponge, sand, shells, leaves, twigs, flower petals, pebbles and pine cones.
10. Visit or Make Sensory Garden
Landscaped gardens tend to be very visual, which can be rather dull for a person with limited or no vision. A sensory garden is designed specifically to stimulate all five senses, using carefully selected flowers, herbs, shrubs, landscaping, and other features. These environments are very engaging for children and adults with sight-loss, empowering all visitors to connect with nature in multiple ways.
Fabulous creative sensory gardens exist throughout the world, from botanical gardens to small oases within city parks. Find out what options exist near you. Your visit may even inspire you to create your own sensory garden at home.
If you don’t have a garden, or don’t want to take on a big sensory gardening project, you can make a super sensory garden box with your child. The creative possibilities are endless, even with a small herb planter.
11. Sensory Treasure Hunt
Take a walk with your child, and encourage them to search for items themed around the five senses. Keep this very simple with a list of open-ended items, such as looking for something that
- Is green
- Feels soft or hard
- Makes a noise
- Can be eaten
- Smells sweet
Help them to find items by drawing attention to points of interest with description as you walk, and help your child explore with their hands if needed.
If you’re visiting the beach, encourage your child to explore a small area and collect different seashells, pebbles or rocks. Take some time together to investigate each item in the collection through the sensory range. What do they look like? Do they make a sound? What is the texture? Do they have a scent? What do they taste like (or what does the child imagine they might taste like)? How are they similar and different from other items in the collection?
12. Nature Art
Art and crafts are always a great way to occupy children. Go for a walk with your child in search of natural materials they can use in their next art project. For example, fallen blossoms, petals, cut grass, leaves, bark, feathers, sticks, berries, and seed pods. Use them to create a tactile collage picture or card, to decorate a box or photo frame, or any number of imaginative projects.
13. Adapt Active Games
Outdoor games are a core part of childhood summer fun, and they can easily be adapted to include children with sight loss. Use high contrast for children with some sight, and auditory and tactile cues. For example, use bright materials, duct tape or sound sources to define the different elements of your game “board” or pitch, and contrasting colours for each participant’s marker. Glow sticks or brightly coloured mini pool noodles taped together into rings make great highly visible substitutes for ring-toss games.
14. Take a Walk or Hike
Walk around your neighbourhood or visit your community park at different times of day. Or take some time to explore a nearby country trail. Encourage your child to help you choose the location for your walk, investigating the options together and what they could experience along each route. Many trails throughout the USA have been made accessible for blind hikers. Consider your child’s orientation and mobility skills and endurance when looking at the route’s terrain and complexity. If your child uses a white cane, ensure they use it, and assist with guiding when needed.
As you go along, take regular breaks so your child can safely explore the environment around them with their different senses – this can be hard to do when they are using their senses for orientation. Blind children miss the visual element of potential destination – the vista up ahead. So Immediate surroundings, and the sensory experience they generate, become much more important. Describe the delights of nature, and encourage your child to share what they experience.
15. Go Swimming
Serious summer fun for everyone, whether at a pool or in a warm summer sea. Be sure to orient your child around the pool, especially which end is shallow and which is deep, where the step entry points, showers, and changing areas are, and where your group is located. Define your location with something easily visible like an umbrella, or an audible marker like a wind chime.
Discuss with your child what they should do if they become disoriented in the water, and practice the steps so they feel confident. Never let children play in the water unobserved or unaccompanied.
Jumping waves at the beach, or splashing about in a paddling pool is also wonderful fun for little kids. If your child can’t yet swim, consider arranging swimming lessons – learning to swim and stay safe near water can be lifesaving.
16. Discover Accessible Sports
With quality instruction and thoughtful adaptations, a wide range of sports become accessible to blind and visually impaired children. From horse riding, tandem cycling and sailing to tennis, cricket, football and mountain biking. If your child expresses interest in a particular sport, research adapted options in your area. Ask your local and national rehabilitation representatives what accessible sports services are available for blind children, and ask your child if they would like to have a go.
17. Have a Picnic
A simple pleasure on their own or as part of another activity, picnics offer great opportunity to teach life skills with some fun and excitement. Involve your child in planning, preparing, and packing the food. If you are grocery shopping specifically for the picnic, consider paying in cash so your child can practice making purchases. Encourage them to identify the notes and coins needed, and count any change.
With simple demonstration and instruction, children can help with many food and picnic basket preparation tasks, such as:
- Locating ingredients and utensils
- Counting out food items or utensils
- Washing fruit and vegetables
- Spreading fillings onto slices of bread with a spoon
- Combining, mashing, stirring, or scooping ingredients
- rolling pastry and cutting into shapes
- Lining a baking tray
You don’t have to go far for a fun family picnic. Enjoy al fresco dining in your own garden, or even a carpet picnic in front of the TV. A vacation from the table can be a great adventure for children. Breakfast in the garden is especially good as sunlight exposure first thing in the morning boosts the body’s daily biological clock and is the most effective source of natural Vitamin D.
18. Guided Imagery Meditation
If you don’t have a garden and you can’t visit green space near your home, or you just need a little extra oasis of calm, guided imagery meditation can be an excellent way to unwind. Carefully prepared recordings transport the listener to beautiful places and a meditative state with soothing spoken word and creative soundscapes.
The narrator will talk you and your child through the process step by step, with easy to follow instructions for breathing and visualization. You can simply listen, let go of the day and all burdens, and relax. The soothing effects of guided meditations often result in you falling asleep before the meditation ends, with little or no recollection of the story when you wake up.
Get Sleepy, Sleep Cove, and Guided Sleep Meditations are all podcasts with wonderful natural guided imagery episodes suitable for both children and adults in their extensive backlist repertoire of meditations and sleep stories.
In this episode from Get Sleepy, Thomas Jones narrates a mystical story about a girl named Ella, and a magical lake where beautiful wonders await.
19. Learn to Recognize Birdsong
Birdsong is beautiful, relaxing and uplifting to listen to, and can be especially rewarding when we recognise individual birds in the chorus. The marvellous range of songs and calls in the avian kingdom offers blind and visually impaired people an alternative route to identifying birds, and the process can be very meditative.
Being aware of the birds in our local environment at different times of year is an important part of learning about life, growth, global environments, migration, and conservation. Empowering children without sight to recognise individual species, and even differentiate between male and female calls, opens up a realm of connection with the world around and far beyond them.
There are many learning resources and guides online, tailored to the range of birds found in different locations around the world – search for resources covering your region or country. You can also use birdsong apps to identify birds in the wild, or learn the songs and calls and test your knowledge. This comprehensive birdsong app guide is particularly useful for North American residents.
20. Write a Nature Inspired Story
Encourage your children’s creative writing or storytelling skills with one of the following challenges (or use your own). If your child is too young to write, encourage them to tell you their story so you can write it down for them.
- Describe a magical woodland using all five senses.
- Find an object on a nature walk and tell the story of its life.
- Write a story that involves at least two of the following:
- a magnifying glass
- oak tree
- bee hive
- Describe a day in the life of your garden or street from the perspective of:
- sitting in a tree;
- a bird in flight;
- a hunting cat.
- Describe one of the following:
- a picnic from an ant’s perspective;
- a zoo from an elephant’s perspective;
- an ocean sunset from a dolphin’s perspective;
- an African rain storm from a zebra’s perspective;
- the summer thaw from a polar bear’s perspective.
Share the stories together at a family reading.
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.