by Julia Bowman, TVI, DT/Vision Specialist and Evaluator in the IL Early Intervention Program.

Active learning is an educational philosophy based on the work of Danish Educator Lilli Nielsen. It was created to address the roadblocks that visual impairment creates in the development of very young children and is based upon the principles of two major child development theories; cognitive/constructivist theory and social learning theory (Grusec, 1992; Piaget, 1954).

Sensory Component of Learning

In cognitive constructivist theory, babies and toddlers use their senses to collect information about the environment and objects they encounter. Many young children with visual impairments must rely on their sense of touch, so 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.

Dr. Nielsen created the active learning approach to meet the unique learning needs of young students with sensory impairments (Nielsen, 1991). 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, which are predictable learning environments and materials that provide opportunities for repetition and practice at a child’s own pace. Perceptualizing aids also allow the child to be an active, rather than a passive, participant in his or her own learning experiences (Johnson, Griffin-Shirley, & Koenig, 2000). There are dozens of different perceptualizing aids that may be constructed simply from materials that are typically found within the home environment. Of these, the little room is perhaps the best-known. 

The little room is an open cube that is typically constructed from solid sides and a clear plexiglass top. A variety of interesting objects are suspended from the ceiling using elastic cords, so that the child will encounter an object by moving their body. The consistent placement of these objects allows the child to develop a sense of spatial awareness, especially with respect to their own body (Nielsen, (1991). By design, this space limits environmental distractions. It can also act as an echo chamber if used with a resonance board (Nielsen, n.d.). An alternative is a dangle bar play-gym or mobile because it resembles the little room in its predicable placement of objects. Its benefits include portability and smaller size, and it fits within many types of home environments. However, it does not limit distractions from the environment.

Scratch boards are a different type of perceptualizing aid that were designed with the goal of opening up fisted hands (Nielsen, 1993).  Small squares of interesting textures or objects that encourage a scratching motion are affixed to a board of sturdy material. By manipulating the objects at their own pace, the child will progress from simply scratching the objects to a more sophisticated grasp.

Another type of perceptualizing aid are attribute trays. They teach concepts by allowing comparison of different objects that belong to the same category.  The Active Learning Space website has a page of “Attractive Objects” adapted from Nielsen’s 1992 work Space and Self. Nielsen recommended that various household tools may be used to create these categories, such as spoons, cups, balls, objects of one color, brushes, and many other common home items. The key is to keep the items together in a predicable space so that the child can retrieve them repeatedly. Some attribute trays employ a pegboard, as it allows objects to be secured with elastic cords.

The perceptualizing aids described above are only a brief representation of the numerous active learning materials created by Dr. Nielsen. There are also various ways to adapt them to fit the needs of families (Clarke, 2004). With respect to all of the perceptualizing aids, materials should be chosen based on the child’s likes and dislikes, available learning channels, and observed reactions to different sensory stimuli. Families know their children best, so collaboration with caregivers is essential in order to choose the most motivating materials. 

Social Component of Learning

In terms of social learning theory (Grusec, 1992), 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. To address the roadblocks to social and emotional development, Nielsen created the five phases of educational treatment (Nielsen, 1990).

In phase one, offering, the adult plays near the child and explores an object, making sure that the child can access the object with at least one of his senses. The goal of this phase is to lay the foundation of a trusting relationship between the child and a play-partner, so the child must be the one to initiate the interaction. This may be a challenge for educators and parents, but it is critical for students who are withdrawn inward, engaging in self-stimulation, or who have little interest in interacting with objects or people in the environment. In phase one, the adult play-partner should take the opportunity to monitor the child’s responses to sensory stimuli.

In phase two, imitation, the play partner acts as a mirror to the child. The child should be presented with a motivating object, while the adult obtains an identical object. The goal here is for the child to notice the adult’s actions and realize that his actions are observed by others. When choosing a set of objects, emphasis should be placed on auditory qualities so that the child can observe the adult’s actions through hearing. Eventually, the adult may make a slight change to their play and monitor the child’s reaction. If the child notices this change, the adult may introduce new ways of exploring the object.

In phase three, interaction, turn-taking games are used as a vehicle to facilitate the formation of self-identity. Dr. Nielsen calls these “me to you and you to me” games.  For little ones who have motor limitations, partial participation may be used to this same end. The child should not be passively moved through any part of the activity, rather, he should complete a portion of the activity that may be achieved independently, while the adult performs another portion of the activity.  [To note: the final two phases are not appropriate for a child who is functioning at a developmental age of 24 months or younger with respect to social/emotional development].

In phase four, sharing the work, the child is invited to complete a task that represents part of a daily routine. This task should be based on skills that the child has previously mastered. Phase four activities may be embedded into a child’s daily schedule as it affords many opportunities to practice cooperation with others. As children are given greater responsibility in the routine, they gain confidence in their abilities. 

In phase five, consequence, the child begins to understand that their actions affect others. The adult provides descriptions of how their own actions, as well as the child’s actions, affect the outcome of situations throughout the day. As this process is repeated, the child begins to understand that his choices have consequences.

Active learning, by addressing both the sensory and the social and emotional components of learning, provides an abundance of strategies for teachers who serve developmentally young children with visual impairments. Perceptualizing aids provide consistent access to materials and opportunities to practice skills through active exploration. The five phases of educational treatment lay the foundation for socially-based learning by respecting the unique learning needs of children with visual impairments in terms of social and emotional skill development. By experiencing both aspects of Active learning, children with visual impairments can discover a balance between self-sufficiency and cooperation with others, and this enables them to flourish in both educational and community settings.  

Learn More:  If you want to learn more on this topic please view Julia Bowman’s FamilyConnect webinar presentation Empowering Young Children and Families Through Active Learning


Active Learning Space (n.d.). Attractive Objects. Retrieved June 30, 2021 from

Clarke, K. (2004). Hold Everything! Twenty “stay-put” play spaces for infants and preschoolers with sensory impairments and other special needs. Dublin, OH: University of Dayton School of Education and Health Sciences Grant Center, Ohio Center for Deafblind Education.

Grusec, J. (1992). Social Learning Theory and Developmental Psychology: The Legacies of Robert Sears and Albert Bandura. Developmental Psychology, 28, 776-786

Johnson, K., Griffin-Shirley, N., and Koenig, A.J. (2000). Active Learning for Children with Visual Impairment and Additional Disabilities, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 94, 584-593

Nielsen. L. (1990). Are You Blind? Copenhagen: Sikon

Nielsen, L. (1991). Spatial Relations in Congenitally Blind Infants: A Study, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 85, 11-15.

Nielsen, L. (1993). Early Learning Step by Step. Copenhagen: Sikon.

Nielsen, L. (n.d.). Active Learning Space: Resonance Board. Retrieved June 30, 2021 from

Piaget. J. (1954) The Construction of Reality in the Child. New York: Basic Books