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Active Learners Happen to the World: Supporting Active Learning for Children with Visual Impairment
By Beth Ramella, M.Ed., TVI/COMS

Have you ever heard the saying “You should happen to the world. Don’t let the world happen to you”? Dr. Lilli Nielsen, a Danish psychologist, coined the term “active learning” for children who are blind or visually impaired. Children, all children, learn through play. Sighted children learn by participating in activities in their home and learning environments. They observe other children and they imitate them. They move their bodies and explore environments by watching those around them. They watch and imitate interactions of other children and adults.

A child who is blind or visually impaired does not naturally have these opportunities and does not develop these same skills without intervention. Given proper support, they can learn to actively play and participate with friends in their environment. They can learn to problem solve and learn at higher levels. They can travel independently. Aside from driving a car, an active learner who is visually impaired, can do all the same things as a sighted learner.

Developing an environment for creating an active learner begins by observing the child to determine their interests and abilities. Assessment and observation help to determine what the child knows and what areas he/she needs to experience and learn. Practicing and providing instruction with those skills that are determined need areas is important to learning.

Play, observation and assessment help the instructor or parent to determine the knowledge the child already has and to build on that knowledge. Taking the time to explore, play and interact with toys or common objects is important step in the natural learning process. Rather than guide the activity, allow your child to explore the materials.

If you are reading a story to a young child, consider adding props to act out parts or to reinforce directional concepts. Throughout the story, stop to ask the child questions about the characters. If your goal is to pick up, count and sort small blocks into a metal bowl, give your child the bowl and watch how they explore it. Does it become a hat or a drum? If you model locating a block, picking it up and listening for the metallic ding as it drops into the bowl, can he/she imitate your actions? If not, note where the breakdown occurs. Does your child know where the blocks are kept or the where to find the metal bowl? These, too, are important in the exploration of your surroundings. Creating environments and having high expectations is essential in the success of a child with visual impairments.

For more information about visual impairments, contact Beth Ramella, Director of Outreach/CVI Project Leader, Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, at ramellab@wpsbc.org or (412) 621-0100 x379.

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