Children's hands playing with braille Lego bricks

Everyone loves a birthday party! Our hearts are filled with joy as we celebrate life accomplishments. As members of the blind and low vision community January 4th is a day of celebration for us. If he were alive, Louis Braille would have been celebrating his 211th birthday. He only lived on this earth 43 years, during that short time he changed the lives of blind and low vision children and adults forever.  

On Jan. 4, 1809 Louis Braille was born. He was blinded in an accident when he was three years old, working/playing in his father’s Harness shop trying to punch a hole in a piece of leather when an awl (Sharp tool) slipped and hit him in his right eye. His right eye soon became infected and the infection spread to his left eye, leaving him totally blind by the age of five.   

Louis Braille was both an intelligent and diligent student at The Institute for Blind Children in Paris. Charles Barbier came to his school to introduce a system he created, which allowed soldiers to communicate with each other in the dark.  Night Writing was an encoded system consisting of twelve dots arranged in two Columns of six dots. Most teachers and students thought it was too hard, and it would not work as a communications method for blind students. Eleven-year-old Louis Braille kept working/playing with the system. He trimmed a twelve-dot system down to six dots. He was determined to create a method of communications that would lessen the gap between the blind and sighted. Braille did not become the official code used by people who are blind until after Louis’ untimely death. Braille became the official code used by the blind in France in 1853 one year after his death. The braille code made its way to America in 1860 where it was introduced at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis. 

Two hundred years of braille literacy is worth a celebration!  At the time of this writing the world is in a pandemic. When the ideas for refreshments/games and activities were developed in-person classes were the norm. Now much of our learning is virtual. Celebration and fun-filled activities are more important than ever. Some of the activities listed below will need to be tweaked for virtual learning, others may need to be tabled until person to person learning occurs. I will try to emphasize activities which can be accomplished at home with the help of parents or siblings. 

You can’t have a party without snacks. Candy red hots can be used as braille dots. Each red hot will serve as a braille dot, place the dots in the formation of the letter desired. It is easy to write happy birthday, or other messages on a cake, cupcake or cookie. A braille alphabet reference sheet is available: www.braillebug.org 

Another fun activity is to make fortune cookies and write the fortunes or secret messages in braille. Opening fortune cookies and reading fortunes is always a fun-filled and interactive event. Reading fortunes in braille adds a whole new dimension to fortune telling.  

My favorite game for learners of the braille alphabet is called “dots up”. Six students will arrange their chairs in the form of a braille cell, two dots wide, and three dots long. Each person will be assigned a dot number. If the game host askes for the letter “A”, dot #1 will stand. If the game host asks for the letter “Z” dots, “1, 3,5, and 6” will stand. This is a good way to incorporate both braille skills and exercise. 

Another fun game is to pass around a box with cards that have the name of an object written in braille. The card can be printed in uncontracted or contracted braille depending upon the student’s skill level. Then a second box is passed around containing objects matching the words in the first box. Examples may be, brush, pencil and pen. Pick out the object that matched the word. 

A more advanced game would be to pass around a box with short instructions written in braille. Introduce yourself to the person sitting to your left. A scavenger hunt with instructions written in braille is always fun, and a good family activity which can be played by both blind and sighted. 

Building with Legos is always a fun activity for everyone.  Now Legos with braille markings are available.  

Another fun activity would be for the student who is learning braille, to share newly acquired knowledge by teaching friends and family how to read and write braille. A braille coloring book is a good tool for teaching sighted children braille. Having parents and siblings who know braille can be helpful throughout life. As they can use their braille skills to help with written communications. 

Encourage students who are learning braille, to use creativity to express feelings (good or bad) about braille. Write articles or poems about the use of braille, or what happened in braille class. Artists can draw a picture. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has a contest each year for artists who are blind or who have low vision. It would be exciting to have an entry depicting the life of Louis Braille. A raised lined coloring book may be a good way to reinforce knowledge of the braille alphabet. Board games were once a good way for families to connect. A wide range of board games including scrabble are available from online sources like Maxiaides and Learning, Sight, and Sound Made Easier (LS&S)  

Creative families could also design their own board game using braille. The drama queens among us could write a play re-enacting the life of Louis Braille. A podcast about the life of Louis Braille, or what braille means to you would be a fun/educational activity. Students could build the home of Louis Braille, his father’s work-shop, or his school with braille Lego’s.  

The Jazz Band at the Ohio School for the blind gave us an example of how to put creative skills to work. They used their music and literary skills to re-write the song “It’s All About that Base.” Their song is entitled “It’s All About That Braille.” 

The above paragraphs were designed to serve as a spring-board for finding fun-filled ways to teach and learn braille. Students often think of braille class as the “braille jail.” Louis Braille was a liberator, and the best way to honor him is to be the best learners, teachers and promoters of the braille code we can be.