Active Learning – an Empowering Approach to Teaching Young Children with Visual Impairments

A photo of a toddler's hands exploring several household objects on a tabletop.

Editor’s note: Author Julia Bowman and her counterpart Sara Edwards, TVI’s, DT/Vision Specialists and Evaluator in the IL Early Intervention Program, and her counterpart Sara Edwards, will present “Empowering Children and Families Through Active Learning,” in a webinar on December 14 at 2:00PM ET. Click here to register.

What is active learning? Rather than a single strategy or teaching method, active learning is an educational philosophy based on the work of Danish educator Lilli Nielsen. After reading a number of her publications, including her foundational work, a book titled “Are You Blind?”; I have come to the conclusion that Lilli Nielsen was, quite simply, a genius.

Both her upbringing (living with six siblings who had visual impairments) and her educational training in both developmental psychology and early childhood education gave Nielsen a rare perspective with respect to the development of young children with visual impairments. She based her active learning approach upon the principles of two major child development theories – cognitive/constructivist theory and social learning theory, and she had a deep understanding of the roadblocks for young children with visual impairments with respect to each of these theories. 

In cognitive/constructivist theory, babies and toddlers use their senses to collect information about the environment and objects they encounter. As many young children with visual impairments rely on their sense of touch, in order for a baby with visual impairments to explore an object, it must be within arm’s reach. As a consequence, children with visual impairments (especially those who have a motor impairment as well) must wait for an adult to bring them something to investigate. In terms of social learning theory, infants and toddlers rely on visual observation and imitation of caregivers to acquire new skills. Without the ability to imitate, a child’s development may be stalled. In addition, social and emotional development is often delayed in children with visual impairments due to the highly visual nature of social interaction. It is this area that Nielsen chose to give her focus – she suggested that in order for an activity to be developmentally appropriate, it must match the child’s social/emotional developmental level.

Nielsen created the active learning approach to meet the unique learning needs of young students with sensory impairments. She understood that in order to maximize independent exploration, young children must be able to access materials with one or more of their senses. This discovery led to the creation of numerous perceptualizing aids – predictable learning environments and materials that provide opportunities for repetition and practice of skills at a child’s own pace. They also allow the child to be an active, rather than a passive, participant in his or her own learning experiences. Many teachers and families are familiar with the Little Room®, but there are, in fact, dozens of different perceptualizing aids that may be constructed simply from materials that are typically found within the home environment.

To address social/emotional development, Nielsen created the five phases of educational treatment.  This protocol respects the way that young children with visual impairments learn through touch. Too often, toys are placed into children’s hands without warning, or children’s hands are manipulated in a way that makes them passive participants. This type of handling can have severe consequences, including tactile defensiveness or a reluctance to reach out and explore the environment.  In active learning, the goal is to develop trusting relationships with caregivers or play partners in order to lay the foundation for socially-based learning. Children take an active role in interactions and gain confidence in their abilities. Each phase is built upon the last and offers the child the opportunity for higher levels of social interaction.

As a birth-to-three teacher of students with visual impairments, I have found active learning to be an empowering approach to working with my young students and their families. It is a great fit for home-based learning, since many of the materials employed are household items. Active learning environments provide consistent access to materials so that students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities, can explore with all of their senses. Active learning methods provide a path for social interaction between caregivers and their children, which increases confidence and strengthens bonds. In my experience, when we teach families about active learning, we create a powerful combination – caregivers, who know their children best, and the way that children with visual impairments learn best. And that’s just genius.