Reading to your child is important for her development in so many ways, including teaching her about different concepts and experiences, improving her communication skills, and getting her ready for learning to read (see “Helping Your Blind or Visually Impaired Baby Learn About Reading and Writing” and “Promoting Your Preschooler’s Development of Reading and Writing Skills”). If she is blind or has low vision, adapting her books so that they have a tactile aspect to them—so that reading the books also involves touching them—will engage her more in the reading experience. And even if your child has a lot of usable vision, adding some tactile information to a book or creating a story box or bag to go with it will make reading even more fun for both of you.

Picking a Book

When you pick a book to read with your child, look for a book that has ideas, objects, and activities in it that will be relevant to your child. Your child takes a bath regularly, so a book about bath time will be something she understands because she has had a similar experience. If she has low vision, pick books that have pictures without a lot of clutter around them. Look for pictures that have good contrast with the background. Let her get as close as she wants so she can see the pictures.

Not every book will be one your child can relate to from firsthand experience. A book about going on a safari in the jungle is going to be more difficult for her to understand because she has not had this experience. If a book does contain concepts and ideas with which your child is not familiar, try to relate that information to something she knows about. If the safari book has a section about a lion, for example, you can talk about the lion at the zoo. If your child has not seen a lion at the zoo but has had experience with a cat, talk about how a lion is much bigger than a cat, has very sharp claws, and like a cat, has four paws, a tail, and fur.

If you and your child will be having a new experience—for example, her first visit to the dentist—find a book about that experience. You can use the book as a way to help her prepare for the new experience and to introduce new vocabulary such as “dentist’s chair” and “dental floss.” If she can’t see the pictures in the book, you may need to give brief and clear explanations, referring to experiences that she has already had. After the experience, read the book together again so the two of you can talk about her experience.

Books are also available in both print and braille for children who are likely to become braille readers. You can read the print to your child while encouraging her to run her fingers along the braille. These books can be borrowed free from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped or purchased from organizations like Seedlings and National Braille Press, or your child’s teacher of students with visual impairments may be able to loan some to you.

Adding Tactile Drawings and Braille to a Book

Virtually all children love books with textures and objects that match the story, such as the classic, Pat the Bunny, and these features are especially helpful for children with little or no vision. When your child’s books have pictures that she is not able to see, you can also add your own tactile component to the picture. To do this, look at the picture and figure out what is important in understanding the story. For example, in a book about taking a bath, the tub would be important, but not the plants sitting on the window sill above the tub. When you add tactile material to the picture, only add it to the important parts of the picture. You might take a piece of plastic wrap and cut it out so that it covers the tub in the photo. To represent the child in the tub, you might use some yarn to represent the child’s hair and add a piece of terry cloth to stand for a washcloth. You don’t need to add a lot of detail, such as the child’s eyes and nose; you’re helping your child learn that this texture stands for that item or element in the picture.

You may come across instructions or devices for making tactile drawings or diagrams—representations of pictures in which the lines are raised. However, keep in mind that a raised two-dimensional drawing, such as a drawing of a hairbrush, isn’t like a real three-dimensional hairbrush and won’t necessarily convey an image of that object to your child. Your child first needs experiences and understanding of a hairbrush before she can understand that a picture of it is the same as the object.

When possible, you can add real objects to the drawings. If the book is talking about the child in the tub using the soap when taking a bath, you can glue a small bar or piece of soap to the picture. Adding two to three textures per pages is sufficient in most instances.

If your child is a braille reader or a potential braille reader, you can add braille to the book. Several companies make a clear laminate that you can braille on and then cut out and affix to the page. (Your child’s teacher of students with visual impairments can show you how to do this and help you with learning the necessary braille.)

Another idea is to make your own tactile books together with your child about experiences or activities she enjoys (see “Helping Your Blind or Visually Impaired Baby Learn About Reading and Writing”). For example, a story about a kitten may be very interesting to a child who owns a cat (see “Promoting Your Preschooler’s Development of Reading and Writing Skills”).

Making Story Bags or Story Boxes

Story bags or story boxes are a collection of materials that are used to demonstrate the story when reading a particular book, whether it is a print picture book or one with braille added to the pages. When collecting materials to put in the story bag or box, look for things that your child will enjoy touching. You don’t have to have every object named in the book, but focus on a collection of objects that are important in acting out the story. You might have a book about a boy who lives on a farm and enjoys playing in the mud in the barnyard, feeding hay to the horses, collecting eggs from the chickens, and eating tomatoes from the garden. It won’t be possible to get the animals in the story for your story box, of course, but you might get some hay, a hard-boiled egg, and a tomato. As you and your child read the book together, you can have her pull each object out of the box as you read about it. She can act out the story using the objects.

When acting out a story, avoid using plastic objects such as pretend fruit or miniature animals. For a child who is blind, there is little or no resemblance between a miniature plastic horse and the large, warm, breathing creature covered with hair that is the real animal. Not only that but feeling the difference between a plastic tomato and a plastic apple may be difficult for many children. It is best to use real objects whenever possible. If you need to use something that is not real—such as a stuffed mouse rather than a real one—talk with your child about the difference between “pretend” and “real.”

Whether you’re reading books from the library, a favorite bedtime book off the bedroom shelf, a print-and-braille storybook, or a book you’ve made yourself, adding the experience of touch to your reading session will help make the book come alive for your child.