Experiencing the World Firsthand: Creating Learning Opportunities for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

by Anne McComiskey

a mother holding up her child to touch the branches of a tree

Experiencing the world firsthand by doing is the most effective way that young children who are blind or visually impaired can accurately build their ideas about life in general and things in their world specifically. The richer the variety of experiences children who are blind or visually impaired gain, the broader their knowledge of the world.

Without real, hands-on life experiences, children who are blind or visually impaired could develop "empty language." Empty language refers to a situation of confusion where the blind/visually impaired child has words to talk about something but incorrect or no ideas to attach to the words.

Tommy was one bright kid in a fifth-grade class at Perkins School for the Blind. He was studying trees in science and could talk all about trees. He knew the names of everything and what did what! He impressed everyone with his broad "knowledge" of trees. One day, Tommy was outside with the teacher and inadvertently bumped into a tree while hurrying somewhere else. "What's that," said an excited Tommy. He started to touch the tree, feel the branches, handle the leaves, and rub his fingers along the bark. Suddenly, there was a loud surprised intake of breath. "Is this a tree?!?!"

That teacher learned her own life lesson about the incredible importance of real-life lessons.

Certainly, all children benefit from a wealth of experiences. Children with full sight gather a vast majority of concepts and information about the world incidentally. They can learn from watching everything close up and far away. Children who have limited sight, confused sight, or no sight cannot gain accurate life information incidentally. Intentional adventures with life experiences can compensate for this lack of incidental learning.

A learning experience for our children needs to have some specific aspects to be most effective:

  • There has to be plenty of time to let the experience happen. Little hands and fingers cannot be yanked, pushed, or pulled. The child has to have time for the brain to consider what the hands are experiencing.
  • Someone also needs to coach the child. Coaching will be different for children of different ages. Effective coaching for the littlest learners will probably be by providing vocabulary. (For example, "Tree. This is a tree.") Core words and not complicated sentences seem to be most effective. Coaches of a little bit older learners may be more effective by asking a few questions that will encourage our child to think about what is happening. (For example, "I wonder what this is...")
  • Probably the most important aspect of a great life experience for learning is fun. Children (well, us adults, too) are hot-wired to engage when having fun. So, add fun by making the situations engaging, being a little silly, singing or rhyming, and "getting into it" yourself.

Busy parents can't spend all day setting up these important experiences. But building time into the daily routine and repeating it often will be really meaningful and more doable. Mealtime, bathtime, car time, bed time, shopping time, and play time are daily opportunities for life experiences. So while you're doing what needs to be done, build an experience including time, thoughtful words, intention, and fun. Your little learner will surprise you!

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