American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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Science Is Everywhere: Encouraging Curiosity, Experimentation, and Tactile Exploration in Young Blind Children

by Melissa Riccobono

Melissa Riccobono speaks at the front of the room.From the Editor: Young children are scientists. They love to tamper, test, and experiment in their eagerness to discover how the world works. Blind children are no exception, but a variety of factors sometimes hinder their impulses and close off their opportunities. This article is based on a presentation at the NOPBC conference in which Melissa Riccobono suggested practical ways to encourage exploration by blind infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary-school children.

I've worked with kids in many capacities. In this presentation I'm drawing on my experiences as a parent, a BELL® coordinator (Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning®), and a former school counselor.

Maria Montessori often said that children are little scientists. They are constantly exploring and trying to understand why things are the way they are. We must make sure that our blind kids are encouraged to explore and to be little scientists like their sighted peers. Sometimes this can be challenging. The world isn't always set up well for children in general or for blind children in particular.

Learning through Touch

When a baby reaches out to touch something, unless the object is hot or sharp or dangerous in some other way, adults probably will let the baby touch it. But by the time that child is one or two years old, what are parents saying all day long? "No! Don't touch! Don't touch this, don't touch that! No no!"

Naturally kids have to learn some limits. If they want to touch the stove while you're cooking, you have to say no. You help them understand why they can't touch it, that touching it will hurt them. But if your child is blind and doesn't know what a stove is, you need to let your child touch the stove when it isn't turned on. The child needs to learn which parts of the stove get hot, and what a burner is. Children need to learn where the knobs are and what a stove does. If you're holding their hands and keeping them safe, they can find out from a safe distance what heat feels like when the stove is on. They need to know what the whoosh! means when you turn on the gas.

Even with some limited vision, what your child is able to see may not be anything close to the whole picture. Kids with low vision need to touch things. In fact, I believe that all children need to be able to touch things. Touch is an important way for children to explore the environment. I think that for children from zero to eight years old, touching is okay, although of course we have to teach boundaries.

Every summer I teach at the BELL program in Baltimore, Maryland, and I've had many opportunities to observe how blind children explore. Sometimes when I hand an object to a child, the child is very curious. Some children move their hands very systematically from top to bottom and left to right, or they start at the middle and go to the edges. They'll feel all around the object and notice lots of details. But some children are much more passive. They just lay their hand on the object and keep it still, or maybe they touch one corner with one finger. Your children need to be encouraged to explore the whole area of an object before they can understand it.

Encouraging Exploration

You can encourage exploration in many ways. You can talk to your children about how big something is, using a reference that they will understand. If the object is small enough, you can have the child put a hand on each side. If you enter an unfamiliar room, you might stand at one end and have your child stand at the other end, back by the door. When you talk, your child can get an idea of how far away you are.

When children are reluctant to touch things and explore with their hands, professionals sometimes refer to the condition as tactile defensiveness. Casey Robertson wrote a wonderful article about this phenomenon for Future Reflections a couple of years ago. It's called "I Don't Like That," and it offers a number of suggestions for helping children overcome their reluctance to touch things so they can learn to explore tactilely. You need to develop and encourage those skills slowly over time, and the younger the child is when you get started, the better. The sense of touch is very important for your kids, so you'll want to be sure they learn to use it fully.

Ongoing Conversations

You also need to talk to your child. I was very lucky because I had a mom who talked to me all the time. She talked about what she was doing around the house. She explained the noises that we heard and the smells I noticed. We talked a lot about textures—smooth and rough, hard and soft.

My mother and I talked about directions: up and down, front and back, above and below. Kids don't know these things automatically. I've sat in meetings where a teacher says, "The child is only two! He's not ready to learn up and down yet." It makes me laugh! You mean we can't say up and down to a two-year-old? These are directional concepts that any child should learn as early as possible! Don't be afraid to use words such as above, below, in, out, right, and left. Your child might not understand the concept right away, but it doesn't make sense for you to avoid using those words until a teacher says the child is ready!

General Knowledge

It's very important to talk to your child about colors. I'm totally blind. I can't see colors at all, but I like to know what colors things are. It's important for your blind child to know that the sky is blue on a nice day, but when it's cloudy the sky is gray. Sometimes there are white, puffy clouds in the sky, and sometimes there are heavy dark clouds. Your children need to know all that as part of their general knowledge. It's information they might come across in conversations or stories.

As time passes you may discover that your child has assumed certain things that are not actually correct. I just turned forty this past year, and I always assumed that apple juice is red. I just found out two days ago that apple juice is more of a yellowish color! I had no idea! My mom told me many, many things—I knew that apples can be green, they can be yellow, and they can be red. Mostly when you talk about an apple, you talk about a red one. I just assumed that apple juice is red, and I never thought to ask. Apples are red, so naturally apple juice should be red, right? It's not that my mother neglected me or did something wrong. She just never thought about it, and I never thought about it, either.

There will always be moments like that, and that's okay. As you go through your day, ask yourself, "What might my child not know?" You might try asking, "What color do you think this is?" Even if your children don't actually know what color is, it's good for them to have an idea what colors things usually are. It's a good frame of reference as they grow up. As a parent I am really happy that I have all the incidental knowledge I gained from my parents so I can teach my own children.

Questions, Questions, Questions!

When your child asks questions, pay attention and try to answer. I know it can be hard to find the time, when you're busy running here and there and juggling a hundred chores at once! Maybe you can take one day a month, and tell your child, "This is going to be a slow day. On this slow day you can ask as many questions as you want, and we're going to explore as many things as we can."

Maybe your child asks you, "What is an ATM machine?" Go visit an ATM, and let your child explore it thoroughly. Explain how you get money out of the machine. Show your child where you insert the card and where you punch in the numbers—and make sure you explain that you can't just take out as much money as you want, any time you want it!

On the next slow day you might visit a baseball field. You can walk from first base to second base to home plate, visit the outfield, and climb on the bleachers.

Give your children as many experiences as you can. The younger they are when you begin to do this, the better! My mom was great at doing this kind of thing! We explored storm sewers, and I listened to the water running down the pipes. We walked up and down the boulevard in our town, and I touched the flowers that were planted there. Some of the flowers were wide open and gorgeous! Some were wilted and droopy, the saddest-looking flowers ever! I learned the difference between a really pretty flower and a flower that needs help.

Later on, things changed for me. When I was in high school a piece of sculpture was set up near my school. My mother said, "There's a new piece of art out here! Do you want to touch it?" What do you think I said? "No, Mom! No! What if my friends see me touching the sculpture?" I was embarrassed. I'm very grateful that my mother took the time to show me things when I was little, before I became self-conscious. Please understand, I'm not saying you should give up on showing things to your children when they're older. It's just that you might get some resistance.

Above and Beyond

When you and your child explore something, it's very important to show your child the whole object, or as much of it as you can. A tree is a good example. When you're a little kid and you touch a tree, you might not understand that it has branches, depending on how tall the tree is and how tall you are. For a long time I thought a tree was a big round trunk with bark on it. I knew there were supposed to be leaves and branches somewhere, but I had no real idea what they were like. Eventually my dad picked me up and showed me some branches. Later, as I got older, they let me climb trees, which was awesome! I loved it! I was a tomboy, and I was all about anything I could climb.

Sometimes you may not be able to let your child touch the real thing. Then you might show your child a model or a 3-D printed version. You might use a tactile picture. You might lift your child up to reach something that's high overhead. Your child might use the cane to find out how high a ceiling is or to touch the top of a doorway. You can tap on something that's high above your child's head to give an idea of height through sound.

Give your child safe places to explore. Sometimes leave your kids alone to explore on their own. If your kids are in the back yard and you're on the patio, it should be okay for your child to venture out and find things.

Time to Explore

Aurelia Ama examines a tactile coloring page with her mother, Rachel Star.I think independent exploration is very important for all children, not just children who are blind. I find it sad that schools now have structured recess. Not only do you have to be structured when you're in the classroom; you have to be structured on the playground, too. You have to play the games you're told to play. I think a lot of kids don't get the chance to be unstructured. They don't get the chance to roll on the grass or find a stick and play with it. Of course it's important for kids to be safe, but it's also important for them to have the chance to explore with peers or to explore alone.

Exploring can go on inside the house, too. My mom's kitchen had a cupboard I could climb into. When mom was washing dishes or cooking on the stove, I had pots and pans to play with. I could bang on a pan with a spoon and pretend to stir things. I could put pans on my head or drop them on the floor. I was out of my mother's way, and I was busy exploring. I didn't always use things in the ways that were intended, but that's what being a little scientist is about. A pan can be a hat sometimes. A pan can be a drum, or a couple of pans can be cymbals. A pan can be a trap for catching aliens! Pans should not just be pans.

I was able to play so well with pans because my mom had taught me a bit about cooking. She showed me what she did with pans, and she taught me to stir. I knew what pans were used for in the adult world, but I also was free to explore other possibilities on my own.

How Things Work

Whenever you can, allow your children to try to figure out how things work. I'm not suggesting you do this every single time they get their hands on something new. Maybe they're getting frustrated, and it's almost bedtime, and it makes sense for you to step in and help. But if your child wants to try to figure out how something works, let that happen.

For me it was batteries. I don't know why, but I loved batteries when I was a kid. I remember playing with a nine-volt battery; it was a telephone, a TV, and a radio all at once. I guess I was ahead of my time! It sounds a lot like a cell phone, doesn't it?

Anyway, I loved batteries, and I knew that batteries went into things. My favorite toy was a tape recorder. Remember those cassette tapes, the kind that got unwound sometimes? I'd get really sad whenever that happened!

My cassette recorder used batteries. I'd take it to my mom and say, "My batteries are dead," and she'd put in new ones. Then one day I said, "I want to put them in myself! How do they go?"

At first it was hard. I didn't realize that you had to push the battery against a spring, and I didn't know which end had to go in which direction. I sat for about fifteen minutes, trying to figure it out, before I gave up and asked for help. In some ways the experience was frustrating, but in other ways it taught me a lot. I think too often kids aren't given time to explore and learn on their own.

Children need to learn that they're probably not going to do a new task perfectly the first time. It's important to let kids make mistakes! Making mistakes is part of being a scientist. A lot of inventions came after a great deal of failure. Some inventions happened by pure accident. Mistakes and even failures are valuable learning opportunities for our kids.

When I was little I didn't believe that any sighted person ever got lost. I truly thought that sighted people never made mistakes. If you make a mistake when you're trying to do something, let your child know. "Uh-oh, I just took a wrong turn!" If you're a teacher, make sure your students know that you make mistakes, too, just like they do.

Pudding and Pasta

One more thing I would like to say—let your children make messes! I know messes are totally okay for some parents, and for other parents a mess is the worst thing ever! I let my children paint each other with pudding one day, and my husband said, "I don't want to be anywhere near you when you're doing this! I don't even want to know this is happening!" The kids had so much fun! It was awesome! Then I hosed down the deck, and everything was fine by the time my husband came home. He thought it was fine that I was doing it—he just didn't want to be around when it happened. If you're not a person who can deal with messes, find someone who is, so your kids can have those experiences.

Another thing you can do with your kids is practice skills through play. Wading pools, water tables, and bathtubs are terrific places to practice filling, measuring, pouring, stirring, spooning, and splashing. A little water might get on the floor, but most of the mess will stay in the bathtub.

Sand is great, too. Sand at the beach is fine, but I'll admit that I do not love sandboxes. Sand gets all over the place! But sand is another great learning tool. With sand you can practice building, filling a bucket, sifting, and pouring. What is sand like when it's wet? How is it different when it's dry? 

Something else I love is dry pasta. When my son was small we had a pasta box. It was a long, low bin, the kind you might slide under a bed. We bought all kinds of pasta: wagon wheels, bow ties, spirals, big shells, and little shells. We put everything into the pasta bin, and we could play with it in so many ways! We dug roads in it, we sorted it, and we counted it. We shoveled it. We hauled it in dump trucks. And if my son wanted to put it in his mouth, it was okay. It was just pasta. He likes raw pasta to this day!

Get simple toys, not just noisy toys. Noisy toys are fun, for sure. But some of the best toys are the simple ones: boxes, blocks, Duplos. There are some very nice magnetic toys out now that have big pieces. A very young child can't swallow them. All of these toys allow your child to explore and discover.

One of my very earliest memories involves my dad, who passed away in 2010. I remember that my dad put me up on his shoulders so he could show me the ceiling in our house. He showed me the light fixture and the lightbulb in it. My brother turned the light on, and I felt the bulb get warm.

Years later I asked my dad why he did that. He said, "Well, you didn't know there was a ceiling up there, and you didn't know what it was like."

When you take the time to show things to your child, you will help your child understand the world. You will create memories that your children will cherish forever.  

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