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Moved to Move
Alethea’s a lucky girl. The petite three-year-old clambers up the metal steps, then gleefully launches herself down the slide.
That might seem ordinary enough. But Alethea is blind, and many kids like her don’t know the simple joy of movement. That’s because physical activity – even sliding down a slide – isn’t easy for kids who are visually impaired.
Vision gives kids reasons to move, whether they’re reaching for a dangling mobile, crawling toward an intriguing toy, or mimicking big kids playing hopscotch. It also literally provides the “big picture” that helps kids assess situations from a distance and determine whether they are safe.
Kids with less vision tend to move less from the time they are infants, so their physical skills lag behind their fully sighted peers. As a result, they often miss out on everything from playground antics to the camaraderie and challenge of organized sports.
That’s really too bad, because while everybody benefits from physical activity, it’s even more important for kids who are visually impaired. Even basic daily activities such as walking and eating take more energy and co-ordination for them. They also tend to have fewer opportunities for stress release and socializing. For kids with impaired vision, physical activity makes their daily routines easier and is a venue for peer interaction and developing friendships. It also opens doors to recreational experiences – everything from skiing to snorkelling – that sighted kids often take for granted.
Fortunately, little Alethea is not likely to be left out of anything her sighted peers are doing. Alethea’s mom, Winnie, watches with obvious pleasure as her daughter takes another exhilarating run down the slide.
“We have so much fun!” Winnie says. “She just loves being active. She loves water, so swimming is a huge one. When she was two I took her to do parent-tot gymnastics and she just loved that. There are so many benefits .... It helps her sleep well. Every time she does something new physically, or achieves something new like climb up a new ladder or whatever it might be, she’s excited. She wants to do more of it and she’s more confident.
And it’s important that she knows what things like skip, hop and run are, so that she can participate fully with her peers at daycare, and later on, at elementary school.” Winnie confides that Alethea already knows her “left” and “right,” actually putting her ahead of many of her sighted peers.
But when Alethea was born, her mother had no idea what was physically possible for her child. “I was relieved to know there was help out there and there were people out there to help us, because I didn’t know what to do,” says Winnie.
Groups like the B.C. Blind Sports and Recreation Association showed Winnie how to cultivate Alethea’s physical skills. “Meeting the people at B.C. Blind Sports was really good. They gave us a lot of good information .... We played a lot of physical games with her, like tickling her on her feet, her legs, her stomach; carrying her in different positions,” Winnie explains. “When Alethea was maybe three to nine months old, we would attach socks and wrist bands with bells on them, so whenever she moved or kicked her feet she would hear the bells .... Now we do a lot of talking through her environment, describing to her what it is that she’s actually touching or experiencing or doing. It’s all had a huge impact.”
Alethea’s physical confidence illustrates the value of developing physical skills as early as possible. That’s why Vancouver Foundation helped to fund a DVD and written guide showing parents how to encourage physical activity in preschoolers who are visually impaired.
“It’s really groundbreaking material,” says Jane Blaine, executive director of B.C. Blind Sports, which is producing the guide. “While it’s never too late to benefit from being more physically active, the earlier kids start moving, the more opportunities they’ll be able to take advantage of. We haven’t seen this kind of help offered to parents anywhere else. The resource will make important information available to parents across B.C., and, through our website, to parents across the globe.” The guide, Encouraging Physical Activity for Preschoolers with Visual Impairment, offers ideas such as how caregivers can use sound, touch, smell and taste to entice their children to move, how to teach basic skills such as walking, climbing, throwing and catching, and how to prepare a child for physical activities at school or daycare. It also includes interviews with parents who have gone through the process of facilitating the physical abilities of children who are visually impaired.
As one of those parents, Winnie has no doubt that investing early in her daughter’s physical abilities has already paid off handsomely. “It takes a bit of an extra effort but I think it is so important,” she says.
From the smile on Alethea’s beaming face as she lands, one more time, at the foot of her slide, it’s obvious she agrees wholeheartedly.
For more information, visit www.bcblindsports.bc.ca To support programs like this one, contact Vancouver Foundation’s Donor Services at 604-688-2204