Nearly 3% of children in the United States are blind or visually impaired. Low vision affects every child uniquely. The toys and support tools that benefit one child may differ dramatically from those that benefit another. Each child's needs depend on the cause and extent of visual impairment.
It can be confusing and costly for families to try out an assortment of options for play and learning. That’s one of the reasons an ophthalmologist or pediatrician will refer the family to a team of experts that can provide guidance and support.
Many children with visual impairment qualify for support through the federal government's Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Through these services, families can access a team of experts who will recommend and introduce tools, assistive devices and toys to aid the unique developmental, play and learning needs of their child. The type of professionals involved, and their approach, will vary depending on the child’s age and stage of development.
Here's a quick look at how toys for children with low vision, and their team of professionals, may evolve with a child’s age and stage of development.
Ages 0 to 3
Programs and experts
Babies and toddlers should be referred to an infant/toddler program, with an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP). This is a federal and state-funded early intervention program that provides access to a professional, multi-disciplinary team. The team can include an early childhood teacher, special teacher of the visually impaired (TSVI), as well as occupational, physical, speech and other therapists as needed. These experts will come to the home to evaluate and assess the child’s needs and develop a personalized intervention plan that can be integrated into the family’s daily life and routines.
Developmental goals for infants and toddlers with low vision include: bonding with caregivers, establishing communication, cause and effect, hand-eye coordination, auditory-hand coordination, motor development, object permanence and recognition, sensory awareness, and spatial awareness. The early childhood team will bring to the home toys and tools to help develop these critical skills. At this age, when a child learns through play, toys can also help promote bonding, attachment and reciprocal interactions.
What to look for
This is the age to allow the child to explore the world by touching people and objects around them. Help the child know what’s going on outside of them by describing what you’re doing and seeing. Toys do not need to be complex to promote fun and learning, and simpler is often better. Other senses—touch, smell and hearing—can help the child learn to recognize everything around them. When choosing toys, features to look for include: highly contrasting colors such as black and white, lights, noise and texture. Balls of different sizes and colors, pictures and books with large, simple facial expressions, play gyms with hanging toys and, for older babies, shape sorters are all great choices. Remember that toys don't always have to serve a developmental purpose; they can just be fun. It’s always helpful to take toys out of the package before wrapping them.
When presenting an object or toy to a baby, gently touch their hand to help establish the concept of reaching out. Use anticipatory cues to help prepare children for play and other upcoming activities. For example, tap a spoon against the bowl to indicate “let’s eat.” It’s also helpful to use your hand under the child’s hand to guide and encourage exploration and touch.
Ages 3 to 21
Programs and experts
Once a child turns three, they become eligible under the IDEA for another group of federal- and state-funded support services. The student’s TSVI can register kids with the American Printing House (APH) and add them to the Federal Quota to receive free educational materials. This includes books, toys and electronics they might need in school, all specially designed for their level of visual impairment and developmental stage.
When children with low vision enter the school system, their educational team will include the TSVI. The TSVI will partner with the family and school to develop the child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). This is an individualized plan of services and supports that addresses your child’s unique developmental and educational needs. IEPs are reevaluated at regular stages of the child’s life, up until they turn 21. The child's school and social environment is continually changing, so the modifications to maximize vision and learning also need continuous reexamination. IEPs often include accessible educational materials, magnification tools, modifications and accommodations for the classroom and home.
Developmental goals for younger school age children include: continued development of motor skills, social and emotional interaction, moving from concrete to abstract (i.e., from a ball in the hand, to a photo of a ball, to a drawing of ball) and literacy. From 3rd grade onward, children are reading to learn and to increase breadth of knowledge. As they move from primary school into adolescence, it’s important to further children’s unique interests such as sports and music and to promote creativity through arts, sports and other hobbies.
What to look for
For preschool- and primary school-aged children, toys and games that work toward literacy in a play environment are ideal. Choose books that have bright colors, textures and/or audible sound. Other great choices for play include lighted construction blocks, dominoes with raised dots, kinetic play sand, sports games and musical instruments. For older children, technology apps are engaging tools for both learning and play.
Technology tools and apps
Technology tools can help make everyday life easier for children and adolescents with vision impairments. Whether they need more support reading, taking notes in class, or enjoying a favorite activity, technology can lend a hand. Smartphone and touchscreen-based devices have many built-in tools like large font, high contrast and screen readers to help children access many capabilities. The child’s TSVI can provide great input into choosing appropriate technologies and applications.