University of Edinburgh

Accessing Outdoor Environments for Visually Impaired Children

Presented in June 2011

Inclusive Outdoor Environment

How outdoor space is structured and equipped will influence freedom of movement and appetite for adventurous play and its associated benefits.

Schneekloth (1989): certain conditions promote adventurous play among children aged 7-13 regardless of sex or level of vision:

  • Real world objects (windows, doors, turnstiles, machinery, vehicles.
  • Spaces divided into flexible range of occupiable units, accessed by tunnels, platforms and ladders.
  • Careful definition of routeways, storage places and access points (through contrasting textures, sounds, materials and colours).
  • Careful introduction to the structures of the play environment and their potential for imaginative play and exploration.
  • Introduction to the cues contained within the environment
  • Reassuring briefing on safety issues
  • Areas containing 'play sets' can be most conducive to interaction but may also be most conducive to conflict (eg; 'home corner')

Other considerations

As with all children, self esteem and confidence is vital to these with VI. As these children develop, they can become extremely self-conscious of factors that impede their capacity for social interaction and restrict the range of physical tasks they can confidently undertake. A thoughtfully designed playground can serve as a useful supplement to the attempts of teachers and classroom assistants to integrate the child with VI into the wider school environment in a way that is conducive to the development of self-confidence.

When embarking on group activities classmates should be informed of a child’s poor vision and made to understand that if a child with low vision tends to keep to the margins of the group or to attach themselves to another child, this may be because of an inability to identify individuals within a group. Allocating a 'play buddy' can work very well.

Auditory Environment

  • If using fixed drums or sound tubes ensure tat they are accessible to all and will reward different levels of musical competence. Such features often lack use due to their simplicity and lack of reward for effort.
  • Provide a variety of sounds, methods of making sound and ease of use.
  • Sounds could be made (eg; a bell rung) as a reward for getting to a particular place.
  • The provision of sound in the environment should be designed in a way that allows it to be avoided too by children for whom it may be a source of stress.

Sensory Cues & Landmarks

  • Help navigation when used consistently, eg; textures edges/or lines to follow around and through spaces or level changes identified with a consistent texture change.
  • Just as important is logical layout and clarity of routes and places and sounds & smells associated with key "landmarks" en route – eg; audible water feature, traffic, change in surface texture, smell of foliage.
  • Bright colours can be used to highlight changes in surface areas – it is particularly important that steps are highlighted with bright colours and have handrails.  
  • An innovative alternative to handrails for path guides is the creation of oversized footprints which the child with visual impairment can easily follow.  
  • Soft zones are an effective means of facilitating safe play. Making push along toys available can also help.  
  • Team games may be difficult for children with VI – teachers should discover what activities the child enjoys and excels in and provide appropriate encouragement
  • If a child is new to a particular play environment, the child should be taken there in advance of communal play-time in order to explore and discover the environment when it is empty.
  • Reassuring verbal prompts can be an effective way of talking children through all stages of a playground activity.  
  • Children with VI can become fatigued and overwhelmed by visual and sensory input. This process can have an impact on behaviour in inside and outdoor environments.  
  • Allow for an occasional 'time out' and ensure that this does not become stigmatised by other children – perhaps incorporate it into the general schedule.
  • Change activity to less demanding one and return later when refreshed
  • Avoid the facilitation of several intensely visually focussed tasks in a row  
  • Discover ways to involve children in the design of play and rest zones  
  • Teachers and play facilitators can encourage the use of a 'traffic light' system eg; child can say I am feeling green for go, amber for tiring and red for stop. This allows the child to express how they feel as a single word, or by displaying a coloured card.

More Hints

  • The zoom facility of a digital or video camera can be used to help children with low vision to see distant objects such as a plane in the sky or a bird in a tree.
  • Verbal prompts can be used to reaffirm identification of chosen visual targets, eg; "look at the green car".
  • Children with visual impairments need to be given time to process the information they gather about their surroundings – teachers should not hasten to the next object too quickly or give up on the child's attempt at identification too quickly.

Children with VI often experience difficulty walking over uneven surfaces. Handrails can provide access to designated play areas. Brightly coloured footsteps can allow ease of movement from one area to another. Sudden height variations should be minimised and the playground should include a safe level area. Scooters and push-toys can help with stability and confidence of movement while also preventing the child from tripping over obstacles. Bark and rubber play mats can provide safe ground cover.

Designated areas for the storage of any play equipment which is not in use can help to limit potential hazards, while a system of tactile or verbal prompts can be developed to indicate when there is uneven ground ahead. Thoughtfully designed obstacle courses can be a fun and effective means of developing spatial awareness and observation skills

Strong tonal contrast in conjunction with sensory, olfactory clues (eg; scented plants) and sound clues (eg; chimes, rustling grasses etc) will help children and adults with visual impairments to be independent within a play space.


  • Climbing facilities provide opportunities for activity. But climbing opportunities should also be balanced by low level and ground level challenges.
  • Add features to lower parts of structures or rock scrambles for smaller or less able children so they can join the fun without climbing to the top.
  • Use tonal contrast to help users identify hand grips.
  • Design structures with a range of heights, to encourage progression.


  • Strive for a balance between busy and restful places.
  • Provide opportunities for whole body exploration using sound and movement. This affords enthusiastic explorers the freedom to test their own limits, room to develop confidence and develop physical strength and co-ordination.
  • Be mindful that some children can be distressed by noise, unfamiliarity and irregular routine.
  • A mix of high and low sensory environments provides for preference and independence.
  • Some pupils may be hyper or hypo sensitive to sensory stimulus, so it is essential the low stimulus environments are created as a refuge from high stimulus places and features.
  • Some retreat space could be in the form of a simple, one person sized space. Eg: large cardboard boxes lined with material.

Choice of Routeways

  • Try to have more than one accessible route so that children with v.i can also make decisions when way-finding.
  • Avoid emphasising one particular area on a route or within a ground when providing access and sensory engagement as this can lead to loitering and segregation.
  • Children without vision travel without the concept of ‘potential reach’ that vision affords, so their sensory experiences on the way to a destination assume heightened significance. It is therefore important to emphasise cues that appeal to the proximal senses.
  • Good design and flow between activities can help navigation through the play area and help children develop independence.