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Finding the way

Wayfinding is a vital skill for independent living. Sally Beveridge and Patrick Wiegand on strategies for developing a sense of direction

Everyone needs to be able to find their way about. It's a key feature of independent living and making the transition from childhood to adulthood. But for young people with learning difficulties, finding the way from place to place can present real challenges.

Children today probably know the way around their immediate locality less well than previous generations. Among parents, there are concerns about danger from traffic and personal safety. Add to this the electronic attractions indoors and it can be seen why children's spatial experiences may have become comparatively restricted.

However, most children make a transition to greater spatial independence at about the age of transfer to secondary school. For young people with learning difficulties, though, there can be many barriers to the development of relevant skills, such as those associated with literacy, memory, communication and, in some cases, additional sensory or physical impairment.

Nevertheless, if they are to participate fully in the community then they need to feel confident and competent in following specific routes for particular purposes. Independent travel, for example, is often a prerequisite for continuing education beyond school.

In recent years, there has been a tension in the education of those with learning difficulties in the development of life skills such as wayfinding.

Even where life skills are explicitly taught, this is not always centred on a relevant home context. The social world of young people with learning difficulties is often spatially fragmented and wayfinding practice that is included in the curriculum does not automatically take place in the locality where young people will use it. Some of the following activities have been developed as part of the Strategies for Independent Wayfinding project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation at the University of Leeds.

Linking landmarks

One method of finding the way is by navigating from one landmark to the next. Good landmarks can be seen from afar and they are also permanent.

Advertising posters or fish-and-chip vans make poor landmarks because they change or move. Useful activities will draw attention to distinctive colours, shapes, patterns and architectural details. Students can be set a problem-solving task in which they sequence photographs of landmarks they would see when following a particular route, and then use them in planning or reviewing a local walk.

Townscape elements

Another method is to discriminatebetween and attach meaning to different townscape elements. Teachers can build vocabulary for street furniture, buildings, paths and surfaces, teaching students to identify - in the field or from photographs - features such as benches, lampposts and postboxes.

Similarly, we can differentiate between elements of the built environment - houses, flats, shops, offices and factories; roads, pavements, and so on; as well as between physical features - hills, rivers, ponds, lakes and parks; trees, verges, grass and borders.

Literacy in the locality

Literacy for wayfinding incorporates symbols and logos on the street - striped barbers' poles, green pharmacists' crosses, rail and bus symbols and high street retailers' logos all help us make sense of our surroundings. Pupils can develop their awareness of these by tasks such as sorting pictures of symbols and matching them to labels that describe the service or function.

Street names are a significant factor for wayfinding. But many common street names can be problematic for insecure readers. This is compounded by abbreviations such as St., Ave. and Rd. To build word recognition, photographs of local street signs can be sorted by area or road type (all the "avenues" together, and so on). Street signs can be sorted from other signs, such as "Keep off the grass" and "No parking".

Students can be helped to distinguish between signs for pedestrians and signs for motorists, and given practice in reading the different typefaces used for street names. Word games can include dominoes that match abbreviations with the full word.

Wayfinding numeracy

Journeys often require recognition of numbers on buses or on houses and shops. These also appear in different type styles. Students can sort and compare numerals from hardware shops. Odd and even numbers often appear on opposite sides of the road, and students can practise these sequences and predict what number comes next. Ordinal numbers are often a key feature of verbal directions - "Take the second street on the right, and then third on the left". Many pupils will benefit from activities designed to practise these in relation to local routes.

For wayfinding skills to be learned effectively they need to be related to the context in which they will be used. Teaching of life skills needs to be seen as a partnership between school and home. Opportunities for involving parents and carers range from collecting photographic material of the home locality to more structured activities supporting wayfinding in action.

Patrick Wiegand is reader in geography education and Sally Beveridge is senior lecturer in education at the University of Leeds

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