Tyler leaned forward, a look of fierce determination on his face. With a pair of tongs, he carefully plucked a wooden tile out of a large box in the center of the table.
The 13-year-old sat back in his wheelchair and examined the tile. He held it close to his eyes and then felt the ribbed fabric glued to one side.
"It's red!" he said triumphantly. He inserted the tile into one of four slots in the small box in front of him and passed the tongs to the next student.
Tyler had just moved one step closer to winning a game called Please Don't Eat My Pop-Tart, developed by Monica Allon, an occupational therapist and Perkins School for the Blind's unofficial game queen. It's one of the many games Allon has developed over the years for kids who are blind or visually impaired.
Tyler's three competitors – two girls and a boy, ages 9 to 12 – eagerly waited their turns. Using a combination of strategy and luck, each one was trying to find four wooden "Pop-Tarts" that matched the color and texture of their "toasters." The first one to do so would win the game.
But danger lurked in the pile of tiles. If the students picked a tile with googly eyes attached, they would lose one Pop-Tart. If they picked one with sandpaper, they would lose all of them. And if they got a tile that matched the toaster of another player, they had to pass the tile to that player, giving him or her an advantage.
"Children learn about the world through play," said Allon. Even while playing a relatively simple game like Please Don't Eat My Pop-Tart, they learn patience by waiting their turn, social skills when interacting with the other players and teamwork when cooperating with others to win.
Children with sight pick this up incidentally through observing others at play, Allon said. Children who are blind or visually impaired need more guidance. "Our kids need to be taught how to play," she said. "We're here to encourage them to use words when passing the tongs to the next player, and letting them know it's their turn."
Allon's games are a mix of commercially available games and ones created by her and other Perkins staff. The common link is that all have been adapted for use by students with visual impairments.
One such adapted game is "What's in Ned's Head?" It features a large cloth head and a variety of objects, from commonplace to silly to disgusting, that are placed inside the head. Players then pick a card with an object on it, and try to find the object by sticking their hands through Ned's nostrils or ears to the inside of his head.
In the original, commercially available game, the cards have a picture of the object. In Allon's version, the card has the actual object on it, as well as its name in braille.
"This way, whether or not the child can read braille, they can play the game," Allon said. Not surprisingly, young children especially love touching and trying to identify goofy or squishy items – the goofier and squishier, the better.
But Allon's games are not just about learning to play. They also offer ways for students to have fun while learning important skills.
Take, for example, the Perkins building game. The game board is a three-dimensional map of the Perkins campus with all the school's buildings on it, each one identified with braille and a printed name tag. Students roll the die to follow the sidewalks and find their way to different buildings, learning their way around as they practice reading braille.
"Other schools like this so much, they've copied it," said Allon. The game not only familiarizes students with their surroundings, it also teaches skills such as counting and taking turns, she said.
Another game is baseball, the national pastime. Allon and Molly Campbell of the Assistive Device Center created a tabletop version of Fenway Park out of cardboard, complete with the Green Monster outfield wall. According to Allon, the kids enjoy learning how the real game is played while taking turns "hitting" a ball tethered to a small pole in hopes of knocking it over the "fence" for a homerun. Occupational therapists use the game to help students work on fine hand movements.
But whether the games are used for therapy or fun, they're definitely a hit with the kids. When the group playing the Pop-Tart game was finally done – one child proudly holding all four winning tiles – the other players congratulated her.
As Allon collected the game pieces and began to put it away, a student asked excitedly, "Can we play another game?"