Most children thrive on familiar routines, and literacy is no exception. Story time is often a highlight of the day, when all the children gather round and listen to the story, waiting – more of less patiently – for their turn to see the pictures. But what if you cannot see the pictures and the story makes no sense? Story time goes from delight to drag.
Many blind children have limited experiences with the world and do not always understand the concepts that clutter early childhood education. Colors, snowmen, polar bears and penguins, farmyard animals, talking cars and trains, and the latest cartoons are hugely prevalent in preschools, yet these may be utterly meaningless to child who is blind. Until someone takes the time to sit down and play with him, to read with him, to make the abstract concepts real and tangible.
Whereas a sighted child will look at pictures and see that a cow is considerably larger than a dog, and a dog is often much larger than a cat – this small fact may have escaped the blind child. Particularly if the school is using a set of plastic farmyard animals to illustrate the concepts of farmyard. When all of the animals are the same size and shape, when they have the same hard plastic texture, they will have no connection to any real animal the child has ever felt.
By setting aside time and developing a routine to build literacy concepts, you are providing the blind child with the opportunity to connect what is happening during circle time and story time with his own school experiences. One-on-One-Time is a scheduled time in class when your child should be working with his teacher or assistant, one on one, to establish some of the concepts that will come up in class during circle or story time. This is a routine that should have a clear beginning, middle and end; where the child understands what you will be asking him to do – whether it be exploring a few new things, or reading a book, or playing a game; and where the two of you can explore some of the concepts the class will meet during circle or story time. To keep a child engaged and learning, he needs to be active.
If one of the week’s concepts is “Pig”, try to find a good toy pig. This pig should have recognizable body parts, a front and back end that feel very different from one another, perhaps even making a grunting, oinking sound when squeezed. Introduce the toy pig, telling your child what it is and inviting him to explore it. Try to locate the front and back, count the legs, find the tail, where is the nose – and find your child’s front, his back, and his nose, too. Read a short story about a pig, or sing a little pig song, making sure your child is engaged in the process.
Make a tactile copy of the circle time materials, with Braille text and tactile illustrations. While your child is holding his toy pig, invite him to touch the tactile illustration of the pig. A brush of his fingertips is fine to begin with. The texture of the illustrated pig should be very similar to the toy pig, so your child can make the connection between the real object and the illustration of that object. Help him by telling him “toy pig here, book pig here”. Use words like “let’s look at the picture” and “check this out” because it is classroom language that he will recognize and understand from the rest of his day.
During classroom story time, the blind child can hold the toy pig, lifting it up high for the others to see when it is his turn. Keep him engaged by keeping him active. Later, he can “follow along” in the book by having his own copy on a desk or tray in front of him. He might like to touch the illustrations, or perhaps just turn the pages.
Circle activities generally include chances for making choices, raucous songs, riveting read-alouds, and a calendar or weather activity. Most circle activities are very visual, and can be hard to follow when you can’t see. Again, keeping the child who is blind active is to keep him engaged and learning.
Many special education classrooms live and die by BoardMaker picture cues. These little 2” laminated pictures are meaningless to someone who cannot see them, and to children who cannot interpret the pictures. Why not make tactile cues to replace the picture cues for some of the activities?
Tactile Cues: a piece of cardboard on which is attached a tactile element of the song or activity, with printed words, a Braille label, and a piece of Velcro adhered to the back of the cue. These cues can be placed on a piece of felt-board and offered to every child during circle, to pick their favorite song, to select the weather, or the day of the week.
Some children who are blind are overwhelmed by too many choices. For them, it might be easier to make a choice between two alternatives than between six. Removing cues to leave one strongly preferred and one novel choice is a good way of checking if your child understands the tactile cues on offer.
Story Time: While sighted children can see the book and the reader during read-aloud, the child who is blind cannot see either, and often miss the subtle visual interplay between the teacher and his peers in the group. Waiting for his turn to look at the pictures is unlikely to be meaningful for him either. While it may not be possible to create a tactile version of every book read during read-aloud, there are still ways to keep your child engaged during story time.
A tactile storyboard might be just the ticket – a series of tactile cues to illustrate the story at hand. If your story is “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” then you could make cues which reflect each character in the story – the bear, the cat, the duck, the dog. When the other children are busily examining the pictures in the book, you could show your child the tactile cues one at a time, allowing him time to connect the words of the story with the feel of the cues, building the sequence of the story one cue at a time. It also allows your child to be engaged during circle time, using his ears and hands actively.
When using storyboard cues, I prefer presenting them as a sequence. I use a 16-inch piece of cardboard covered in flannel to place the cues on, which is easy to place on a little lap, and easy to place and replace cues onto. Learning to process tactile information one unit at a time, moving from left to right, is an important pre-Braille skill. Some children can deal with a single cue at a time, others can handle two cues – the one I look at now and the one I will look at next. Yet other children like to have a whole array of cues laid out; this way they can take little “sneaky peeks” of the story ahead by lightly touching the cues ahead of them.
Another way of keeping interest is by presenting concrete objects that illustrate the story. Every child in the circle will enjoy handling the Slippery Fish, the Octopus, the Tuna Fish, the Shark, and the Humongous Whale when they are made of different materials and represent a plausible scale (i.e. each one needs to be relatively larger than the preceding beast).
There will be a number of situations in which the tactile cue does not necessarily represent an immediate experience, for instance when you present weather cues. If the children attending preschool are met at the bus, this might be a great time to discuss the weather, checking for rain, snow, or the warmth of sun on the face or the east-facing walls of the school. If your child is amenable to this, you might help him select the appropriate cue before he even enters the classroom. He can keep the cue in his pocket and present it when the question comes up during circle.
If this is not possible, you should still request that your child makes a choice between the weather cues during circle. He will need help from other students in determining the weather if he cannot go out to check for himself. But try to link the circle weather activity with the real experience as soon as possible.
Other Circle Activities:
Many delightful circle activities – show and tell, naming colors, blowing bubbles, catching or throwing beanbags towards specific targets – are far less delightful to the child who is blind. To keep the blind child engaged, try to find alternative activities that the whole group can enjoy together.
1. Instead of naming colors, play counting games. Using fingers, body parts, little toys, spend more time counting up and counting down.
2. Spend more time on body parts. Naming, pointing to, touching. Have the children touch each other’s body parts as well – knees, arms, hair – whatever they will tolerate from each other.
3. Use toys or beanbags to indicate prepositions: put the beanbag on top of, underneath, beside, behind, in front of – or on body parts.
4. Instead of blowing bubbles, blow a variety of balloons. Use the balloons to discuss comparisons: light or heavy, long or short, big or little, up or down.
5. Instead of catching/throwing a beanbag, have beanbags of different textures that can be matched. Each child gets a beanbag and must pick the matching beanbag out of a basket by touch.