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Playing Blind

By Rachel Faugno

Child’s play is serious business. That’s why three WPI students are working to ensure that all kids can benefit from games that unintentionally exclude the visually impaired.

By playing with others, children develop many of the skills they will need to succeed in the adult world—skills such as observing, reasoning, planning, persevering, interacting, and communicating. Many games also promote physical health and improve motor skills. But visually impaired children are often excluded from games enjoyed by their sighted peers, limiting their involvement in beneficial play activities.

WPI seniors Erika Hall, Ryan Lizewski, and Elizabeth McCoskrie addressed this problem through a project focused on developing toys for blind children. The students spent eight weeks in Copenhagen last spring, working in cooperation with Denmark’s Visual Impairment Knowledge Center.

“This project was profound for me,” McCoskrie reflects. “As engineers, we like to quantify, to work with numbers. The social sciences are so different. You can’t take a black- and-white approach.”

The students’ objective was to develop ways of promoting play between blind and sighted children, using toys designed specifically for the blind. “Studies have shown that visually impaired children tend to play more with adults or caregivers than with peers,” notes Hall. “This can lead to social isolation, which in turn may engender other developmental difficulties.”

The team’s goal was to address these problems by understanding how toys facilitate social interaction between blind and sighted children, explains project advisor Ruth L. Smith, professor of religious studies. “They determined that one of the most effective ways to achieve this is through the development of toys designed specifically for blind children,” she says. “Although a number of play products have been adapted for the visually impaired, those adaptations do not necessarily promote the social interaction we were looking for.”

A truly successful game, Lizewski points out, is one that creates a level playing field and is interesting for all players. But an assignment that seemed relatively straightforward at first became more complex as the students dug deeper.

“We spent a lot of late nights brainstorming ideas for games that would be equally appealing and accessible to blind and sighted children,” Lizewski says.

The WPI students were aided in their research by the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., which provided access to its resources and facilities before the students went abroad. They toured Perkins’s specialized toy and game workshop as a preliminary step in their background research.

Once in Copenhagen, the students received further support from the project’s sponsors, who helped set up focus groups with parents of blind children and facilitated access to local schools.

“Denmark has given significant attention to distinctions in early childhood, with the goal of societal inclusion,” Smith explains. “Blind children are incorporated into local classrooms, with the help of an aide. Educators and specialists who work with the visually impaired often have to develop their own play materials.”

She says that one of the biggest challenges for the students was to imagine the existential situation of blindness. “There are qualitative differences between visually impaired and sighted people’s experiences of the world,” she notes.

To better understand those differences, the students visited “Dialogue in the Dark,” an exhibit presented by a science museum in Copenhagen. “We were in a completely dark room for 50 minutes,” Lizewski recalls. “We each had to depend on a cane and other people to get around. It was incredibly challenging, but it helped us understand what blind people go through every day.”

Despite the commonalities of blindness, the students also recognized that there are as many differences among blind children as among sighted children. “Temperament and personality were important factors, and some children integrated and played more easily than others,” McCoskrie recalls.

“We all learned not to be absolute,” Hall adds. “We couldn’t assume that because a child was blind, he or she would respond in the same way as another blind child.”

Instead of focusing on the limitations presented by visual impairment, the students chose to emphasize elements of play that all children enjoy. “Kids like games that give every player the chance to win or lose,” Lizewski says. “So, one of our creations was a game of ‘Go Fish’ that uses fabric pouches instead of playing cards. The pouches contain marbles, buttons, and other items that players have to identify and match by using their hands. It’s the same game whether you’re blind or sighted.”

Another invention was a magnetic game board fitted with wooden spacers. Because visually impaired children use tactile scanning methods to envision the arrangement of a game board, they can knock over and move pieces unintentionally. “Velcro, magnets, or a peg-and-groove system help stabilize the game,” Hall explains.

The students also created an audio CD to replace dice or spinners that prompt moves around a game board. “Kids tend to like noise, and a game that produces music and other sounds is attractive to many of them,” McCoskrie points out.

Their research culminated in producing a guidebook that will be translated into Danish and posted on the Visual Impairment Knowledge Center’s Web site. It also will be made available to the Perkins School.

“We really thought about how our work affects the community,” Lizewski says. “That’s something I’ll take with me wherever I go.”

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Last modified: Sep 28, 2006, 08:35 EDT
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