The World of Play; Written by a Mom Who's Toddler is Visually Impaired
Painful, yet altogether glorious, isn't it? This parenting thing. This ministry of motherhood. How can both the pain and the glory so closely co-exist? There isn't a parent I know who doesn't feel it. As mothers, we learn to live within this tension in life — the tension between the glory of loving our children and being loved by them, but the pain of knowing that we cannot control the variables. There’s glory in holding your sweet little baby that isn’t washed away by the pain of a diagnosis, it creates this tension. Somehow they're both there, they both exist in the same moments we live. This tension strengthens us in the storms of our lives. The love we have propels us forward, and the pain keeps us fighting through, though often fumbling, to secure the only future we desire for these little ones in our care: the very best one. The very best childhood, the most wonderful connection to the world around them, and the fondest memories of home and family.
When my glorious little baby boy was born, we were told he couldn’t see even light. Was there any hope for his future? A kind surgeon looked us in the eye; “He may see 10%, probably nothing” he said. Oof. This was hard news, mamas.
Zion, our bald-headed, chubby, snuggly bundle of hopes and dreams had no pupils, no lenses, glaucoma in both eyes, and at 9 weeks old, one retina detached indefinitely. I would recount to my husband after every visit with him in the NICU “He’s perfect! Is there anything more perfect?!” Yet, I wept over this baby night after night. See? I was in the tension — overwhelmingly thankful to have him to love, yet grieving the losses in our family.
As I read to my older children I would weep at the reality that Zion may never look at a book with me. Would he ever see my face? The love in my eyes for him? My smile? Will he really never look wide-eyed with wonder at a worm or a butterfly like my others? Oh, what questions for a mother to ponder. The first year of Zion’s life was challenging. There were many appointments, many doctors, many questions, and oh-so-many losses. But the story doesn't end there. After almost 10 surgeries before he was 8 months old, we finally saw signs of vision. His development has been slow, to be expected. It is difficult to say what he can see now, but I’ve learned that in some ways, what he can see doesn't really matter as much as I had thought.
In the early days, I wondered: how do you make that ‘very best - most wonderful - fondest memories’ type of childhood when your child can't see the world around him, and can't even see you? As he left infancy behind, the answer became simple: we play.
Here’s the thing; play crosses all kinds of barriers between us. Play has the unique power to cross barriers of culture, age, language, ability, comprehension and so much more. Play connects us emotionally, strengthens our bond with one another, and gives us fond memories and experiences. Through play, we learn from one another. We learn about each other's passions, joys, limits, strengths, hopes and dreams, and even fears. When we play we can test ideas, process trauma, learn all kinds of math and science, and cause and effect. But most important of all, play allows our children to thrive in spite of their life circumstances. Play is not only fun, it is imperative to their resilience and their ability to overcome.
If I’m honest, the topic of play touches a sore spot in me, because it has challenged me to stare my losses in the face and continue on in hopefulness. As infant recovery and childhood blindness can delay physical and cognitive development, play can be a challenging process of learning. If you’re struggling with play, I hope that in sharing some things Zion has taught me you may find somewhat of a compass for your family and light in your tunnel.
Children want nothing more from us than the safety that connection offers them. A deep sense of “you see me and you are here for me” calms us both, bonds us to our children deeply, and gives them the confidence they need to explore the world and to learn. Especially for children with low vision, feeling secure in an uncertain world is the bedrock of their learning. Making connection a priority with toddlers just means increasing positive experiences and being intentional with their needs for cuddles, kisses, hugs, and laughter - it’s the gift of being known.
Use Your Words
It is helpful to use words to narrate your actions in play and all the other areas of your life to enrich your child’s vocabulary and keep undesired surprises at bay. This is a major way visually impaired children can continue to learn.
Get Physical (They are not fragile!)
When Zion was born, I remember being so careful with him as if he would break! Toddlers with visual impairments love to roughhouse. And they need it! They need to be flown around like airplanes, and up in arms chasing the other siblings around the house with the RAWR of a bear. Their faces light and their laughter erupts! They need this kind of play!
Play With Sound
We have five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Having one of your senses impaired heightens the others. We have the most fun playing with sound in our home! You may find your child likes to throw things to hear their percussion and also measure spatial depth. Make it a game in your home to play with the sound of everything! Throw pot lids, drum the hardwood, and tap utensils on various containers. Plug in a keyboard or give them a basket of instruments. Sing to them as much as you can and read them many nursery rhymes!
Play With Senses
Offering your child many opportunities to play with foods, smells, and textures of all kinds will benefit them immensely. One of the best ways you can do this is by taking them with you to experience the world. There are new smells and textures everywhere we go. The farm, the grocery store, the park. You can make up sensory bins for home play, too.
Believe in Them
Follow their lead, and believe in them! Believe not only in the motivations for learning that your child has been miraculously furnished with on the inside — but in their ability to overcome many of the things we see as obstacles to their growth and happiness.
Allow your child to redefine what you think you know, about everything. Especially about play and experiencing the world. There is wonder in everything they feel.
Cultivate a culture of celebration in your home. Let your child’s life be a story that declares “look what I can do!” Instead of keeping a tally of what they cannot. We can do this by being mindful of what we say to and about our children. Use the language of celebration!
Comparison is the thief of joy (Theodoore Rosevelt). Instead, make an effort every day to enjoy your life! Take your child into your lap and appreciate all that they are in this moment.
Look For Goodness
In times of heartache, look for goodness in your life. Appreciate the small things that bring great joy. And remember what you DO have — the person. They are always worth it.
Though your child may not be able to see well or even at all, it doesn't mean that they can never see; they learn to see with their heart. They experience the world around them with intense passion and focus, and they use all their senses. Let’s soldier on in the world of play for the good of our children!
"Play is the mediator of the invisible and the visible.” -Dora M Kalff, Therapist
Valery Brown grew up climbing hay-bales in fields as far as the eye can see in the beautiful countryside of Haldimand County Ontario, Canada where she lives with her husband and their three children. She is an accredited Montessori Teacher — turned Classical Education homeschool mom, and a licensed Parenting Class Facilitator for peaceful solutions for parents and kids. A wife, a mother, and a lover of Jesus - she knows the joys and the bustle of the too-busy-to-breathe lifestyle of moms everywhere, and the heartache of sick kids. Valery’s own experience parenting kids with trauma ignited a passion for helping families heal from and prevent ongoing childhood trauma in their kids through building strong parent-child connections. She also hopes to inspire parents of children with disabilities to find the grace they need for each day through stories, because she believes stories can change the world.