Early Orientation and Mobility Concepts for Young Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

four children, two with canes, two without, smiling as their orientation and mobility instructor holds the door open for them

Like a child learns to read and write only after extensive understanding of the "building blocks" that are letters and sounds, a child will eventually learn to safely and confidently navigate the environment only after extensive understanding of the "building blocks" of Orientation and Mobility (O&M).

As a sighted parent of a child who is blind or visually impaired, you may initially believe you can’t teach the basic elements of O&M because you have little to no knowledge in the use of mobility tools and concepts. Not true! Sure, you will want the expertise of an O&M specialist to instruct your child in specific mobility strategies, but you are the best person to informally enrich your child with O&M concepts and skills.

I want to provide you with a list of "building blocks" needed for proficient mobility skills; you’ll find you are, naturally, the expert-teacher of the following:

  • Your child will need to understand body concepts in order to safely and efficiently navigate his environment. Teaching body concepts involves demonstrating how a body moves through space (this is accomplished by holding your baby or young child on your hip, inviting your toddler to stand on your feet while you walk, etc.), teaching body parts through play and song, and helping your child understand how his body moves. Help your child explore movements and teach the vocabulary involved in activities such as pushing a button, rotating the wrist, reaching over the head, ducking down low, crawling, lunging, pulling up, walking, etc.

  • Your child will benefit from heightened sensory awareness because traveling with minimal sight involves listening for patterns of traffic and paying close attention to sights, textures, and smells. You can help your child develop sensory awareness in countless opportunities by exploring and describing what your child is seeing, smelling, and feeling. You can learn more by reading, Living Life While Helping Your Child Develop.

  • Give your child an understanding of spatial and positional concepts. Walk with your child around the perimeter of his environment (bedroom, kitchen, front porch, library, classroom, etc.) and help him understand where he is in relation to the whole building, then the street, then the city, etc. Utilize vocabulary such as "on top of," "underneath," "past," "to the right of," "across from," "diagonal to," "90 degrees to the left" (as you touch an ‘L’ shaped raised line and turn left), "walking in a straight line," and compass directions.

  • The better understanding your child has of location and travel concepts, the better equipped he will be to traverse his environment. Give him ample opportunities to explore what he will come in contact with: hallways, walls, doors, doorknobs, pantries, closets, elevators, cars, homes, buses, etc. You can learn more by reading Building Knowledge in Blind Infants and Toddlers.

  • Your child needs motivation to move! Invite your child to explore interesting activities and environments, place appealing (visually and/or auditory) objects just out of reach and get down on the floor with your child as you ask him to move toward you.

  • Your child will need to follow directions when traveling. Beginning with a familiar routine, ask your child to perform a task (such as, "hold the toothbrush") and praise him when he follows the direction. Continue teaching direction following; asking him to follow two, three, four, and more directions.

  • Help your child obtain positive and safe mobility experiences in order to increase his confidence. Your home furnishings should be kept in predictable locations while your child is learning his environment; the floor should be kept free of loose items; and you can talk with the mobility specialist about providing your child with a device (hula hoop, grocery cart, walker toy, adaptive mobility device, or cane) to keep him from bumping into his surroundings.

You can absolutely do this; I’m sure you already are.

O&M Skill Development for Your Young Child

Helping Your Child Develop Orientation and Mobility Skills

Working with Your Child’s Orientation and Mobility Specialist: 8 Questions to Ask

Adaptive Mobility Devices (AMDs), Precanes, and Long Canes