Engaging the other senses in children with sight loss

The majority of information we gain about the world is through vision. Children who are blind or visually impaired have to learn to use and rely on their remaining senses for gaining knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

In this sensory learning blog Fiona, our Community Services Manager (who is also a qualified primary teacher and hospital play specialist with SEN experience), discusses examples of how we use non-visual information. Then our Enablement Officers, Rachael and Marie, share ideas for some games to encourage children to engage their other senses!

Introduction to sensory learning

Children with sight loss, whether from birth or later, can learn to complete tasks by using non-visual information.  This means using their hearing, touch and smell for sensory learning.  The child can use information from these senses to make sense of their surroundings, to determine where they are, and what is happening around them.

These senses also become vitally important when learning mobility and orientation skills.  For example, using touch for trailing (using the fingers to feel their way around an area), feeling tactile paving, and hearing for sounds of traffic and crossings.

Some examples of how children use non-visual information are detailed below.

Image shows three children sat on a large swing and smiling.
Boy walking down stairs with a white cane.

Hearing

Using sound can help a child with vision impairment in many ways. Listening to people’s voices helps them recognise who people are, and pick out familiar voices in crowded places which reassures them. Voice also gives them clues about how a person is feeling, given that visual clues of facial expressions and body language may be reduced.

Sound can help determine where they are and as ‘landmarks’ both within the house and out and about; for example the hum of the fridge or a clock in a room, and the sounds of traffic and road crossings. Listening to sounds can help determine the direction of a sound as well as its distance from you.

Some people with sight loss learn to use echolocation to detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects, by actively creating sounds; for example, by tapping their canes, lightly stomping their foot, snapping their fingers, or making clicking noises with their mouths. People trained to orient by echolocation can interpret the sound waves reflected by nearby objects, accurately identifying their location and size.  If you would like to learn more about echolocation, you may find this article useful here.

Touch

The sense of touch is used by children with vision impairment to gain clues about objects and their surroundings.  They might recognise mum by her hair or earrings, find clothes by how they feel, find their favourite toys or something they’ve dropped or lost, recognise food by its texture, distinguishing between coins, and determine where they are by feeling with their fingers.

Trailing is a technique that may be taught during mobility and orientation training as a method of moving safely around, such as through school hallways and through rooms, as well as to orient themselves as they travel.  It is a way of moving the fingers along a surface.

Systematic search techniques or ‘sweeping’ using touch helps locate dropped or lost items by using the fingers to make sweeps left to right, forward or backward.

Feeling textures underfoot or with a cane can help keeping safe while out and about, by locating tactile paving or pavement curbs for example.

Touch is also important for children who may learn braille.

Child sat at a braille machine.
Image shows young girl with eyes closed, holding a lamb in her hands

Smell

Smell is not often thought of as significant in gathering information about the environment, but it is important for a child with sight loss. Smells can help vision impaired children in a variety of ways.  Perhaps their teacher wears a particular perfume, or there is an air freshener in one part of the house, or the dogs food bowl!

Smell can help children to recognise foods and children with vison impairments may often be seen to bend over their plate to smell before eating in a way that may be seen as socially inappropriate. Instead, you could show them how to bring a spoon or fork of food to their mouth to smell it in a more polite way.

When travelling and learning mobility and orientation skills, smell can help to identify clues in their surroundings.  For example, learning that to get to the library they turn right at the bakery that smells of bread, or that school is left near the petrol station.  Or that they can stroke their favourite animals at the smelly farm!

Sense games

On our ‘I Can Do It‘ course at Henshaws, we teach children sensory learning in our ‘Getting out and About’ session.

Using fun games we get them to think about how they already use each of their senses and why it is important.  The games get them practicing their listening skills, tactile skills and using their sense of smell.

These are games that can easily be played at home by the whole family and we have provided some PDF printouts with instructions of how to make and play these games (these can be found at the bottom of the page)  You can also watch the video to hear Fiona explain how the games work.

Download game instruction sheets here:

What’s in the Bag? – I Can Do It At Home – What’s in the bag

Sound Bingo – I Can Do It At Home – Sound bingo

What’s that Smell?! – I Can Do It At Home – What’s that smell

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Sarah
Sarah
Sarah is the Marketing Manager with responsibility for Community Services across Greater Manchester, and the Knowledge Village.