If nothing else, the end of the school year is about reflection, right? This year it is also about celebrating a better school setting, and the end of another grade, by way of a playground gathering for all second graders. Along with it came a glimpse into the playground experience for my son who has cortical visual impairment (CVI).
What is a fun playground experience with familiar peers like for a child with CVI?
As we arrive, several kids call out his name, Jasper. Although he hears his name, multiple times, locating the source of each voice is hard. Jasper skips off toward the group of kids who come to him. You go play – I pointed – I’ll be right over there by the picnic table under the trees, and wandered off sporting an intense pink tank top, the better to see mommy.
Of course, the entire second grade had not come out for this but twenty to thirty kids did. All of the kids moving, yelling, and playing about still made for a good amount of visual complexity and sensory complexity (Roman).
At first, the novelty of my son’s arrival holds his friends’ attention. Eventually, one by one, kids break away to form a group to play a game with a ball. Or to go play on the swing. A group of girls take over the spinner ring. At one point, a girl grabs my son’s hand and runs off with him, away from the playground and onto the play field. Her mom soon calls out to her, Time to go. My heart sinks.
If you are a child with CVI, how do you scan the playground and see the other kids and see what they are up to? From a distance, how does a child with CVI see the group of boys on the basketball court, in a circle, with a ball, playing a game? To do this, you first need to be able to visually spot that circle of boys among the background chaos of playground, school, neighborhood, cars. Then, from a distance, you need to be able to recognize, Some of those boys are my friends. Next you need to be able to visually interpret that the boys in a circle are playing a game that you might very much want to play too, if you had visual access to where they are, who they are, and what they are doing.
What is the parent or carer role in all of this? In initiating your child’s participation and inclusion. Hi, can Jasper play? What are you guys doing? Or simply, Make room for Jasper, and silently hope that he can keep up with the tracking and catching and throwing of the ball and follow along with the game. At this age, most of the kids can find their way into a play situation. No matter how you say it, there is no getting around the obvious. He is not exactly included. His participation will require grown up intervention and there are no secret words to disguise that.
Then there are the hugs. In his kindergarten and first grade class most of the kids gave each other hugs (and kisses!). On the brink of third grade, these kids are mostly over it. Except for Jasper, who continues to seek out a hug when he meets a friend. Most likely, hugs are a sensory need in response to the sensory overload he tends to experience in social situations with his peers. When we see friends, it’s good to ask first if it’s Ok to give a hug. When kids get older, like you, sometimes they want fewer hugs. Trying to put it as gently as possible, and seeing disappointment registered on his face anyway.
Sooner rather than later, he is more or less on his own, wandering from the slide, to the spinner, to the pretend cafe/market/post office. Sensory explorations. At one point, he was taken with a tree for a short time, exploring its bark with both hands. That two handed activity that is always encouraged. Don’t forget, use both hands together.
Attached to the edge of the cafe is a red plastic play megaphone. Jasper spent several minutes with the brightly colored object, right at his eye level – looking at it, touching it, fitting his face into the large, wavy circular end of it.
Having a suspicion, I walk over to him and ask, What is that, do you know what that is?
No – what is it? After explaining it is a megaphone, a kind of speaker that you talk into to amplify your voice and make it louder, his comparative thought jumps into action. Mommy, let’s play telephone! (not friend, but mommy, the perpetual best friend)
It’s different from a phone. With a phone, two people talk on each end, back and forth. This is like a speaker, you talk into the small end, and your voice comes out the bigger end, but louder. It was hard not to wonder how many times during the school year he may have sought out that bright red accessory, the object of his non functional play, not knowing what the object is. Because megaphone had not yet been added to the slowly growing visual library in his mind’s eye. And it was hard not to wonder about his examinations of this object, what did his peers make of that? How did placing his face in the megaphone look to other kids? The boy who cannot “see” that it is a play megaphone.
He is not a blind child. He sees the bright red color, in fact it likely leaps out at him. He does not “see” the shape of the megaphone and interpret that it must be a mouthpiece. His brain does not “see” its function as a child’s toy for amplifying his voice.
Another friend from his class arrives, Jasper! he calls out. Because it is always the other kid who spots Jasper and calls his name. Jasper is not the kid who can spot a peer or a friend in a store, walking down the street, or on a not so crowded playground.
A short while later, this same boy is on the play structure, about to come down the slide, and calls out again, Jasper! There were few kids around by then. The boy, wearing a black and white and red striped shirt, stood atop the large, multicolored structure, maybe twenty feet away. After calling out – Jasper! – my son yells, Where ARE you!!!? He could not see his friend, visually lost within the play structure before Jasper.
Reflecting on the school year. What went well, what could have gone better. Did the accommodations and modifications happen. Did access happen. Did learning, did progress happen. All the kids work hard. Most of the time he is working even harder – because he has to.
No matter where he falls academically, or what kind of grades – that will work itself out in time. When he is able to go over and join that group of kids, Let’s play! When there are regular playdates that are not my doing. When there is an annual calendar of invitations. When there are friends for the long haul, not just for that day or that birthday party or school year. That is when I will know he will be Ok.