How Can My Child Get Around Alone?

Written by   Doris Willoughby

In the section on "Play," we discussed how the tiny infant reaches toward a sound, and later crawls toward it. Even at this early age, the child is beginning to learn how to find his way around alone.

After your child learns to crawl, he will soon pull himself upright and take steps. At first, he will just follow hesitantly along a sofa or hold onto someone's hand. Calling him from a short distance away will encourage him to move toward you. Another idea is to place the child's feet on your feet as you hold his hands (with the child facing away from you). You can then take him through the motions of walking, with you doing the work. Actual physical support will, of course, gradually be dropped. You may need to remind friends not to carry your child around after he has learned to walk.

At the toddling stage, and even before, your baby will be developing ways to tell what is ahead of him, so that he can move freely. Each child has a different temperament, a different home, and different circumstances. One home may have two stairways, many rooms, and the toys of brothers and sisters here and there. Another home may be a two-room apartment. Each situation has its advantages and its problems. We urge you NOT to make large changes—and particularly not to move to a different home—just because your child is blind. Make temporary arrangements, such as stairway gates, as you would for any baby, and later remove them as the child no longer needs them.

Many children find it helpful to push a large object around as they begin to walk. Various types of baby walkers are on the regular market. Some toddlers like to push a kitchen chair around on the linoleum. (A chair is very stable, and may be especially helpful for the hesitant child.) A toy lawn mower, wheelbarrow, doll carriage, etc. may be pushed also. Since such a push toy provides information about what is ahead, it is excellent readiness for cane travel. Lori used such a method even before she could walk. She pushed a toy in front of her as she crept along; in order to tell whether there was a wall or other obstacle ahead. Another child, observing his blind parents using their canes, used a plastic baseball bat in good imitation.

The tiny child may try to stand up under a table and bump his head. If this is a problem, teach him to reach up with his hand when he stands. (Later this will usually not be necessary, as he will stand up in more conventional places.) When the older child bends over, he also may need to check with his hand for potential bumps. He may choose to squat in place, without bending his head much, to avoid this problem.

Each child has his individual ways of learning. Different types of encouragement will be helpful with different babies.

Along with learning how to move his body, the child forms a mental picture of the house or apartment so that he knows his way around. Talk with him as he is learning. You might say to the two-year-old, "Yes, there's your fuzzy chair. You went past the sofa and you found it!" To the five-year-old, you might say, "Remember that the door to the basement is closer to the sink, and the door to the garage is farther away. Then you won't always have to open a door to tell which is which."

The toddler is also forming a mental picture of himself. Help him name the parts of his body through conversation and rhyming games. The bath is an especially good setting, as you say with the child, "Now we wash the left foot—can we find the toes?"

Expect your child to walk by himself most of the time. He can learn his way around the house and yard at your own home, and at any other homes you visit regularly. Show your child any rearrangements of furniture. You may decide to keep toys and other objects off the floor in some rooms. Try to keep doors either fully closed or fully open to prevent the hazard of a half-open door projecting outward. Do not enforce such rules too rigidly, however, since your child needs experience with the real world. He can learn to go around the coffee table, and to realize that his little sister is likely to leave her blocks all over the family room.

Look for opportunities for your child to get around by himself away from home also. Show him where the stairs are, but let him walk up and down alone. Let him explore his new friend's playroom without holding onto someone's hand.

Readiness for Cane Travel
The Southview School System had just begun to offer cane travel to children in preschool and the early grades. Six-year-old Kelley was eager to learn to walk to the school bus alone. She was the only child in her class on her particular bus, and she disliked needing to be "taken" to it. She hoped to find the bus by herself right away—after all, she had always boarded it at the same place.

As she proceeded, however, Kelley found that she had much more to learn than she had realized. She often needed to ask questions such as, "Is this a fire hydrant or a mailbox?" "Am I turning left now?" "Does the bus stop on the sidewalk?"

Kelley had, of course, walked past fire hydrants and mailboxes many times. She had walked forward, turned left, and turned right. She had climbed into and out of parked cars and buses. However, she had always been guided by someone else, without understanding exactly where she was, and without putting words with actions. Therefore, she still had many concepts to learn before she could walk to the bus alone—concepts which could have been learned during the preschool years.

In contrast to Kelley's lack of understanding, help your young child to realize where he is and where he is going. Talk about the feel of grass, sidewalk, or gravel underfoot. Comment on the steepness of a hill. Notice the rush of air when you open an outside door, or when you walk past a large building into an open space. Pay attention to the smell of the bakery or the sound of the river. Even though your child is walking with you, he can learn to gain information for independent travel.

Let your preschooler examine the mailbox and the fire hydrant, and help him reach the top. Let him mail a letter. Talk about the names of objects, places, and motions. Repeat each experience over and over. As you walk with your child, sometimes say, "Now we are turning left," or ask, "Are we turning left or right?" Talk about the curb as you step up or down, and examine a parked car's position by the curb. (The child will need to use his hands to understand what the curb is like, where the car is, etc. He may get dirty, but he will learn.) Later, have your child tell YOU how to proceed along a familiar route. In walking to a neighbor's home, ask him which way to turn, how many blocks you must walk, etc.

Teach your child to follow directions, such as, "Go through the doorway on your left" or "Please pick up your chair and bring it here." Even a toddler can walk toward you as you call him. Since knowing right and left is very important for a blind person, it is worth teaching as early as possible. Wearing a ring or a toy watch can make this learning easier.

Teach your child to give directions also, especially for finding his home. By kindergarten, he should be able to give his complete name, address, and telephone number. An older child should be able to explain how to reach his home (as well as other familiar locations) from various approaches, and to describe how to recognize it. Thus, the blind passenger is not passively dependent on the driver of a vehicle, but instead actively participates in reaching the location.

Look for ways in which your child can use sounds to find his way around. Instead of going to him, ask the child to walk toward your voice. When you say, "Please pick up this box," you might tap on the box to show him which one you mean. Play games in which "hide" an object which makes a noise (without turning off the noise) and ask the child to find it. Talk about sounds outdoors, such birds and airplanes. Notice that footsteps and other sounds create different echoes in an enclosed space than they do in the open. Play "Follow the Leader" as you move along while making a sound.

The sounds of traffic are particularly important. If your child pays attention to these sounds and begins to understand them early, it will be that much easier for him to learn cane travel later. When you are waiting to walk across a lightly traveled street, let your child tell you whether he hears any cars. When you prepare to walk across at a traffic light, have your child listen for traffic to stop and start. When he crosses alone with a cane later, he will need to listen for the cars going across in front of him to stop, and for the other cars to start up with his green light.

The independent traveler also needs to understand the rest of the scene which surrounds him. Help your youngster realize, for example, that the sidewalk is usually between the building and the street, and that parking meters are usually by the curb. Mention directions such as north and south, and gradually help your child to use and understand them. Sometimes ask him to point to the traffic, and later to show you which way it is moving. These kinds of things all build an understanding of one's location and of the surroundings.

When a sighted child enters a new school, he will look with his eyes to see where things are. The blind child needs to walk around and touch things, and this cannot easily be done while class is in session. Take your child to the preschool or kindergarten room before school starts and let him explore. Arrange a convenient time for the teacher to meet him. Walk through typical routes such as from the playground to the coat room, while discussing such things as right and left turns. Help the child to examine things by touch, and to explore with his cane if he has one. As you walk along you might say, "Feel the rough brick on this wall ... Now, here's a sink; lets turn the water on and off once ... Here we go through a big door. Notice that your cane makes a different sound when it hits the door instead of the wall. Lets open and close the door. Look at this bar that opens it from the inside; its a lot different from a doorknob, isn't it? ... Now, this wall feels smooth; its made of plaster and its painted green ... We're walking through a doorway and into the coat room. We'll walk along this wall and look at all these hooks. You and the other children will hang your coats on these hooks ..."

Even though your child may still be assisted in moving around during the first days of school, this practice will provide much confidence and readiness to learn. Such orientation is valuable also for the older child entering a new school (even though he is skilled with a cane), so that he will not have so much to learn on the first day of classes. If a resource or itinerant teacher will be working with your child, he may take care of this for you; and a special school usually will plan to orient each child individually also.

When your child is walking with someone, expect him to walk at normal speed. Expect him to move along on his own power rather than being pushed or pulled. When a tall adult walks with a small child, he will naturally take his hand. When the two individuals are similar in height, however, it is better for the blind person to take the arm of the sighted person. (A gentle grip just above the elbow is suggested.) In this manner, the blind person can easily feel the other person stop, step up or down, etc., rather than feeling he is being pushed ahead into unknown territory. The youngster may need reminding to grasp the arm gently rather than squeezing, and to move along rather than holding back.

Experience in walking at normal speed, in various situations, and with different people, is important in preventing the habit of walking very slowly or with an unnatural motion.

Discuss the future use of a cane as a big step to real independence; help your preschool child to look forward to using one. If at all possible, have him walk with a blind adult who is a good traveler. There is no better way to show that the cane really works. Many a youngster has protested that "a blind person couldn't go there alone," only to be taken there speedily by a good cane traveler. Nothing is more convincing.

Learning Cane Travel
The earlier cane travel lessons are begun, the better. Beginning cane travel can be taught effectively to preschoolers, and should certainly be started by the early elementary years at the latest. Of course, a kindergartner should not be expected to cross a busy street alone. He can, however, learn what a cane is for, hold it with reasonably correct form, and begin to use it in a nondangerous area. The sooner he begins, the sooner he will be really competent and the more natural the cane will seem to him.

Some believe that cane travel should be delayed because the young child may not be capable of perfect form and because he should not enter dangerous areas alone. Some may also say that a child must walk without a cane for several years to prepare himself for walking with a cane later.

However, delay results in the buildup of bad habits such as groping and shuffling, and also encourages fear of unknown obstacles ahead. With a cane, the child can find obstacles before he runs into them, and can find steps or curbs before he falls off the edge; thus he can learn to move quickly and with confidence. Learning to travel is a developmental process, like talking or reading—it begins with halting efforts and continually grows. We encourage the baby in his first imperfect words, and the beginning reader in his limited vocabulary, because that is the way he begins. It is the same with the young cane traveler. He may not use the cane perfectly or all the time at first—but he can begin. "Pre-cane" techniques, such as trailing the hand along a wall, can be helpful for the toddler who has not yet learned cane travel, but they are no substitute for the real thing.

When Kelley, in the example above, finally learned to walk to the school bus by herself, she was not left completely alone. An adult remained close by. However, Kelley was carrying out the actions by herself, and was learning innumerable things which she had not learned when led around by the hand. Similarly, when she learned to cross the street without holding onto someone, an adult was always with her at first. Later, when she had built up enough experience, she was allowed to cross without an adult nearby.

When cane travel is introduced to young children in the proper way, other results are nearly always very successful—often rather dramatically so. Understandably, teachers and parents are often hesitant or skeptical at first, since such programs are relatively new. But when the child learns to walk three times as fast as he had before, gradually loses his fear, and feels the joy of independence, everyone, especially the child, is very pleased.

Becky was allowed to walk alone with her cane from the second grade room to the resource teacher's room each morning. She traveled reliably enough so that no one went along to watch her, although if she was late someone went to look for her. One day the fire alarm went off when Becky was halfway to the resource room. She immediately went out the front door and started across the schoolyard, having been taught that one should always leave by the nearest door immediately when hearing the alarm. Becky was soon joined by a teacher, but would have been able to walk alone as far as necessary for safety. She had long ago overcome the need for constant assistance.

Once a child has learned to use the cane well, it is important that it be regarded as a regular, normal part of his equipment for living comparable to shoes, for example. It should be used whenever he walks around, except in the home and in special situations such as sports. When the blind person holds someone else's arm for convenience, he should continue to use his cane, and thus avoid being completely dependent on the other person. With this approach, the blind student is always conscious of where he is and where he is going, and is always prepared for the unexpected, such as an unreliable companion or a surprise fire drill. The student should not be allowed to believe that he has memorized the school building or grounds so well that he need not use his cane. Without a cane, he must either move very slowly, receive special attention, or constantly face the likelihood of bumps from mop buckets, stairways, open locker doors, classmates standing in his path, etc.

If your child has some sight, you may face the question of whether he should walk with a cane or use only his sight. For the younger child, ask yourself, "Does he walk as quickly and easily as most children his age, and with no more bumps than average?" If not, cane travel should be provided. As your child reaches the typical age for crossing busy streets alone and for carrying out business transactions with strangers, more questions must be asked: Can he safely dodge a car whose driver assumes the pedestrian can see well? (Note that a motorist will probably be wary of a LITTLE child, but will assume that an older one will get out of the way. A white cane, however, positively requires the motorist to stop or yield.) Can your youngster read signs easily, or will he appear foolish by not doing so? Can he easily interpret hand gestures from several feet away? If not, he will be often misunderstood and sometimes in physical danger. Many people with partial sight can see well enough to avoid tripping, but use a cane for identification and to prevent problems such as those above. They also often find that walking is much less of an effort or strain when a cane is used instead of vision alone.

Junior High and High School
Many older blind students face a problem of too much to carry. Perhaps the student has a laptop, several large Braille volumes, and a notebook—with one hand already busy with the cane. You and the school administration may need to provide suggestions and arrangements; this is much better than allowing the student to depend on others to carry his things. Might certain books be kept in the room where they are most used? Could equipment be stored in the library, the office, or another central location? Teachers can often tell the student which days certain equipment will be needed. Two lockers might be provided, at opposite ends of the building. A large backpack or tote bag can be immensely helpful.

Compare your teenager's independence with that of his sighted classmates, and seek to eliminate any restrictions which he has and they do not. Perhaps more and better travel training is needed to provide him with the necessary knowledge and skill. Perhaps he already has the knowledge and skill, but hesitates to use it because someone fears he will get lost or hurt. The blind high school student who has received good training should be able to travel independently in school, on the street, and on the public bus.

Reprinted from A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children

Additional Info

  • Topic: Cane Travel and Mobility, Independence & Living Skills, Play and Development
  • Age Group: Any Age