Learning to Set a Course

There are two kinds of familiar environments for humans; indoor and outdoor; each has a set of environmental concepts that needs to be understood to make intelligent movement possible. To use landmarks and clues requires that a student have a good grasp of the environmental details.

Indoor environmental concepts


Outdoor environmental concepts

After a student has gaged initial position and is facing in the correct direction to reach a destination, and before moving, the student must review a mental (or actual) map of the route to be followed (ie. motor planning). This involves several steps:

oneReviewing which landmarks are to be passed and in what order.

twoKnowing the critical landmarks that indicate the need to change direction, as well as secondary landmarks that reinforce the critical landmarks (ie. reviewing the message of each landmark)

threeEstimates of the distance to be traveled along each leg of the journey, and therefore an estimate of time traveled for each segment of the trip.

These three steps require that students understand what it is that landmarks tell blind travelers. Here is a list of possible messages a landmark could relate:

These steps also require that students understand how to sequence (spatial patterning). Step three above requires that students understand about kinesthetic movement (muscle memory) and that they have become proficient (through practice) at estimating distances traveled.

It is important to understand that human beings do not separate out emotion from their movements in space. We revisit places we like, and we avoid places of danger or unpleasantness. Landmarks, if they have any kind of emotional association (good or bad), are more easily remembered, and more easily used as navigational references, than are landmarks to which we are indifferent.

An emotional representation of space, what Spencer, Blades and Morsley call an "affective map" is more significant than the often referred to "cognitive or mental map". The truth is probably that you cannot have a purely cognitive map of space, there is always an emotional content (see: "The Child in the Physical Environment: The Development of Spatial Knowledge and Cognition," by C. Spencer, M. Blades, and K Morsley, Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield, 1989). For a landmark to be effective as a navigational aid, it should have emotional content, it should have a functional place in the environment, it should have a spatial relationship with surrounding landmarks, and it should have sensory attributes (tone, pitch, color, texture, size, shape, etc).

Mobility specialists need to spend time with blind children to help them gain knowledge about relevant landmarks, before or as they learn new routes.

The work of Piaget and Inhelder (1967) suggests that there are three developmental subdivisions for understanding environments. Landmark knowledge comes first developmentally, followed by route knowledge (ability to learn routes), concluding with the ability to make mental maps (survey knowledge). In 1975, Siegal and White reviewed research studies and put forth a theory that supports the conclusions of Piaget and Inhelder ("The Development of Spatial Representations of Large Scale Environments", In H.W. Reese (eds) Advances in Child Development and Behavior, Vol 10, Academic Press, New York.) Siegal and White's theory postulated a developmental sequence that began with learning landmarks, progressed to route awareness, then added the learning of "minimaps" (small scale spaces), and concluded with the combining of minimaps into large scale cognitive maps.Mobility specialists follow this logical sequence when they teach blind children.

Landmarks are sensory "objects." Students may need time to explore and discuss the features of landmarks; their size, weight, shape, smell, sound, texture, purpose, and component parts. Landmarks also have a position in space and are next to, across from, beside, and near to or far from other landmarks or environmental features. Time may have to be spent searching for and exploring these things called landmarks. Actually, this activity is part of the earlier playful years and should be engrained by this level of training (ie. by the time you are teaching a student about setting a course).

After you are sure that landmark awareness is intact, the next developmental ability is route travel. This usually begins with a trip from landmark one to landmark two and a reward. Purposeful route training is best; ie. to somewhere relevant for the student. Increase the number of landmarks and reverse the route as the student gains proficiency. Start with straight line routes and later add routes with one turn, and then additional turns. Mix the student up along a route and practice reorientation. Finally, drop the student off along a route and demonstrate to the student how well they have learned to travel this environment.

Survey knowledge, cognitive mapping (the creation of mental maps), is a higher level developmental skill that rests upon a complete understanding of landmarks and routes. Mental mapping is discussed in another chapter of this section.


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