Including children with impaired vision - Play it my way

Julie Jennings
Tuesday, January 8, 2002

Early years practitioners can help a visually impaired child to be part of the mainstream group with this advice from Julie Jennings

Early years practitioners can help a visually impaired child to be part of the mainstream group with this advice from Julie Jennings

Picture this scenario: three-year-old Sarah and Joseph are playing at the water tray. He splashes the water with his toy fish; she hears the splash and feels the water on her face. They laugh together. But when Joseph looks at Sarah, smiles and offers her the fish to splash with, she does not respond - Sarah is blind and can see neither the fish nor the smile.

Understandably, Joseph looks confused and upset, but Sarah's key worker has been watching and quietly tells Joseph, 'Say Sarah's name first and tell her what you are doing, then you can put the fish near her hand where she can reach it.' With a little help, Sarah and Joseph can continue their game together.

There will be many times when an early years practitioner has to be 'the eyes' of a visually impaired (VI) child who may be partially-sighted or blind. Maintaining a running commentary of what is happening within a group of children will inform and reassure a child who cannot see very well. It is also good practice to use a child's name to replace the reassuring glance that reminds fully-sighted children they are being noticed and included.

A child first

The young child with visual impairment is, first and above all else, a child with the same needs as other children. But they will also have additional needs. Here are some key points for carers to remember:

  • The child's development will be an individual matter, no matter what level of visual impairment they have.

  • Vision is the major source of information. No other sense can stimulate curiosity, integrate information or invite exploration in the same way, or as efficiently and fully as vision does.

  • Higher skills in the use of the other senses do not automatically develop to compensate for lack of sight. They have to be learned through experience and more structured learning.

  • Learning through senses other than vision is slower and often incomplete; it cannot always provide all the necessary information in order to ensure an accurate understanding of people, situations and the environment.

  • The lack of sight can have a profound effect on the child's ability to interact socially. Social clues such as body language, gesture, eye contact and facial expression may be missed or misunderstood.

  • Confidence is influenced by the child's ability to act independently.

Significant visual impairment in children is very rare, affecting only two in every thousand children, so it is probable that many adults working in early years settings have never met a blind or partially sighted child before. Practitioners who wish to include such a child in their setting should contact both their LEA Visual Impairment Service and the early years focus group of the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB).

Early years guidance

The RNIB has a new publication, called Focus on Foundation: including children with impaired vision in early years settings, that closely follows the format of the QCA's Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage. Here are some examples of useful points mentioned under the six areas of learning:

Personal, emotional and social development

  • Ensure that a visually impaired child is fully aware of the range of activities and materials available in the setting.

  • Gentle appropriate physical contact can keep you and the child in touch.

  • Build self-confidence by devising games that make use of the skills of the child rather than emphasising their differences.

  • Understand that the child may not readily learn appropriate behaviour through observation of peers.

Communication, language and literacy

  • For younger visually impaired children, plenty of direct one-to-one conversations with an adult are essential.

  • The child's most appropriate seating position in group sessions should be discussed with a specialist teacher.

  • Sloping work surfaces (for children who need to get close to their work) and good task lighting (such as an anglepoise lamp) may be needed.

Children with visual impairment may not necessarily have to be playing alongside sighted children to be communicating with them. At one nursery a group of boys were playing with musical instruments in the home corner while a blind boy sat apart on his own. When the blind boy started laughing at the sounds the other boys were making they responded by playing up to amuse him further. It may have appeared that the blind child was isolated, but he was not.

Mathematical development

  • Counting objects into a container where sound is generated is effective, for example, marbles into a biscuit tin.

  • Additional equipment may include an abacus; tactile dice; number shapes; tactile dominoes.

  • Use a wide variety of 3D plane shapes before introducing 2D ones. Knowledge and understanding of the world

  • Children who are visually impaired may need to be shown relevant items at close range or view smaller objects under magnification.

  • A child's understanding of his own past may be reinforced by use of objects where photos are not helpful.

Physical development

  • Specialist advice on safety should be sought from a qualified teacher of visually impaired children. Plastic lenses for glasses are usually prescribed now, which are safe to wear at all times, but this should be checked.

  • One-to-one assistance to move independently will be needed in the early stages of learning. Older children should be familiarised with changes in gradients before starting an activity.

  • Finger strength will need to be developed in a child who may later need to learn Braille.

Creative development

  • Children with impaired colour perception still need to be taught the vocabulary of colour and encouraged to find strategies to identify colours. This may include pairing with a fully sighted partner, or labelling crayons.

  • Visually impaired children may not have had the same experiences as fully sighted friends and need to develop understanding before being able to participate fully in imaginative role-play.

The RNIB is running courses on including visually impaired children in early years settings on 5 February in Bristol, 7 February in Leeds and 11 March in Wolverhampton. A date is yet to be arranged for Plymouth. For details, and to order Focus on Foundation, contact me at 7 The Square, 111 Broad Street, Birmingham B15 1AS or email

I can also suggest some early years settings that readers can go to visit that have successfully included VI children.

Julie Jennings is the early years development officer for the RNIB

Points for inclusion

Whatever setting a young child with visual impairment attends, there are some key points for practitioners to follow to give the child a sense of belonging and self-worth.

Visually impaired children respond better within an established predictable routine in a carefully thought-through environment.

  • Words describing visual functions should be used routinely, such as, 'Look at me' or 'Come and see this'. A visually impaired child, even a blind child, will take on board the vocabulary of seeing and will 'look' in his or her own way.

  • Always use the child's name first to gain attention.

  • Opportunities for spontaneous play with sensitive guidance will be an essential way of learning.

  • Take account of the child's individual needs regarding lighting, sound levels and seating as advised by a teacher of the visually impaired.

  • Maintain a running commentary of what is happening within the group to inform and reassure the child.

The transition to nursery is into an unfamiliar environment. Build confidence and understanding by:

  • providing a quiet home-base in the nursery where the child feels safe

  • encouraging the child to move out from there, learning key routes

  • showing the child what is available within the nursery on a daily basis

  • encouraging the child to have a go at something new, and build in success

  • exploring the inside and outside areas with purposeful movement.

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