Exploration and Play

How do sighted children learn a new environment, like a new classroom, a new apartment, house, school or neighborhood? How do adults learn their way around a new city? How do primitive people find their way in jungle regions or through deserts? The answer to all these questions is similar. There is a pattern to the way humans explore new environments.

When entering a new area, humans explore. (When kids explore, we call their activity "play"). Initial exploration of unknown territory is intense and can be highly conscious. It begins with the selection (consciously or not) of a reference landmark. From this landmark random travel proceeds in different directions. These repeated sojourns into the unknown from the reference point, build up a knowledge of landmarks, their positional relationship to each other, and a knowledge of how spatial relationships change (or look) from different angles. A mental map begins to take form from exploration. Adults may take in more than one landmark at a time for reference, and visual analysis can provide a wholistic "snapshot" of a scene that shows landmarks and there relative position. For blind children however, smaller chunks of environment have to be assimilated slowly, usually in adevelopmental sequence that starts first with landmark analysis and identification, proceeds to the chaining together of landmarks to form routes, and concludes with a mental representation of chunks of environment that can moved through easily and reoriented within as needed.

As children or adults explore they eventually discover where they like to go, and where to best find what they need. After a while, they discover the most direct routes to their favorite places; they soon reverse these routes, and later they find and use alternative routes. Adults may study an area, using maps, or ask for assistance. Kids seem to just wander and absorb. Playful adults (travelers), often prefer to learn new areas by this same child like wandering; discovering as they go. In general we can say that environmental knowledge is gained through three avenues; exploration, verbal explanation (feedbacK), or through the use of graphic representations like maps, charts or drawings.

A great amount of exploration is done visually. From a fixated position, a random reference area, a sighted person can take in at a glance the positional relationships of landmarks. A visual mental map can be created very quickly. For blind children, exploring and playing may be difficult. The mobility teacher may have to explain how to explore (how to have fun). Whatever the teacher's approach, initial lessons with blind children should begin with playful exploration.

As I emphasize often in this book, movement is critical for the development of mental abilities. Children have to move about and explore to form perceptions. New perceptions lead to new concepts. Cognitive skills are built upon perceptions and concepts; there is a connection between self-directed movements and the development ofsophistication (and perhaps, varieties of intelligence).

For young blind children, it is not necessary to break activities into lessons (today we learn the parts of our bodies, tomorrow we do sensory drills). Real life, daily activities contain fun events that encompass what we want kids to learn. The mobility specialist needs to follow a young child's flow, go with it, and not be directive. The rule for young children is: no lessons; learn through play. The first places where kids play is in what navigation researchers call the home range.

All animals carve out "home ranges", territories within which they feel comfortable and within which they can move about on a low conscious level. Every individual builds up it's own "familiar area" within which it knows its way around. The home range is that part of the familiar area actually used. The familiar area is larger and less often used than the home range. A familiar area is the sum of all places visited or recognized, even if visited only once (and remembered). A "familiar area map" surrounds the familiar area; it contains distant landmarks that can be used as beacons to locate position.

The mobility specialist begins navigational training by teaching blind children their home range; most often either the child's home (bedroom) or their school (or classroom). From the home range, the student is taught the larger familiar area (neighborhood), and from this the student constructs a familiar area map (collection of layouts or neighborhoods).

A home range is a small area that can be learned through playful exploration. Most blind children with normal cognitive abilities eventually learn their own room and house layout, and quickly learn the best pathways to follow to get what they need, all with little or no help from a mobility specialist. The school is sometimes a different story, since playful exploration of classrooms is not always encouraged.


There are two types of navigation:

oneRoute based navigation uses either landmarks that are passed in route, or compass directions that are monitored at different legs of a journey

twoLocation based navigation uses distant landmarks (within a familiar area map) that are not passed in route, but which serve as beacons (landmarks not visited but which can be used as bearings). The sun stays in the sky and travels a predictable path for example, or a distant mountain range, or the hum of a distant factory, provide bearings even through they are never actually passed along a route.

Navigation can be further understood as a process for determining the direction of a familiar goal across unfamiliar terrain. A distinction needs to be made between navigation and pilotage. Pilotage is the process of determining the direction of a familiar goal across familiar terrain. Much of what we call orientation and mobility is the building of route or layout familiarity, turning students from navigators into pilots. Advanced pilots become good navigators when they find themselves in unfamiliar territory.


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