Future Reflections                                                                                         Winter/Spring 2005

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An Introduction to Dr. Lilli Nielsen's Active Learning

by Stacy Shafer

Reprinted from VISIONS newsletter, Volume 3, No. 2.

Dr. Lilli Nielsen has worked as special education adviser at Refsnaesskolen, National Institute to Blind and Partially Sighted Children and Youth in Denmark since 1967. She was trained as a preschool teacher and psychologist. She has performed research in the area of spatial relations with infants who are congenitally blind and has written several books and articles about educating children with visual impairments and multiple disabilities. Dr. Nielsen's approach is called Active Learning. She has presented week-long training sessions on developing the full potential of young children with visual impairments and multiple disabilities in countries around the world. We were very fortunate that she presented in Dallas, Texas, May 1994. I was asked to write about some of the information she has shared with us.

All young children learn through play. They need to be encouraged to explore their environment and objects in their environment. Dr. Nielsen believes that all very young children learn by being active, rather than passive recipients of stimulation. We need to observe typical children to see how they learn to move their own bodies (raising their heads, reaching for objects, sitting up, etc.), use their bodies to explore their surroundings (including any and all objects within their surroundings), and actively participate in interactions with other people. A visual impairment prohibits a child from having enough opportunities to develop these abilities and have these experiences without intervention. She encourages the adults to set up the child's environment so that he can do this.

Here are a few of Dr. Nielsen's recommendations when developing the child's environment:

Observe the child. It is imperative that we know what the child can do, what activities s/he enjoys, what type of objects does s/he like, etc. Assessing the child's existing skills and preferences is the first step in programming. Observation will help you note the current developmental skills the child has. A child's preferences are indicators of the underlying strengths of his system. These preferences can guide you in the selection of objects and activities. You need to know a child's repertoire so you can notice change and improvement.

Provide the child with more activities and objects that are similar to those he enjoys. This will encourage the child to explore and experience new things and broaden his knowledge base. Young children with visual impairments need to be encouraged to explore not only toys from the toy store, but also everyday objects around the house.

Dr. Lilli Nielsen
Dr. Lilli Nielsen

Give the child opportunities to practice and/or to compare. As adults, we are often tempted to remove materials as soon as the child shows that s/he can use them. We all relate new information to things we already know. For example: the first time you successfully drove a car around the block, you still needed lots more experiences driving in different environments, on different types of roads and highways, different vehicles, different times of the day and night, in different types of traffic, with the radio on and off, with friends in the car, etc., before you really mastered all the skills and concepts about driving. When a child begins to bang one object on another one, he needs to be given the opportunity to bang lots of different objects on lots of different surfaces. (The sound produced when banging a metal spoon on the couch is much different than banging it on the coffee table or a metal mixing bowl.) Children need to be able to repeat an action many, many times in order to learn.

Provide a few materials and activities that are at a slightly higher developmental level to provide a challenge for the child, so he doesn't become bored. You only model these activities for the child. You do not expect him to imitate.

Do not interrupt a child by talking when s/he is actively engaged in play. Most of us have had the experience of talking to an infant who is busily kicking her legs and having the child stop kicking to listen to our voice. When a child is exploring or playing with an object or practicing a new movement, we need to wait to talk with the child about what he was doing until he turns to us to share his experience, or at least until he takes a little break in the activity. This does not mean that we need to
stop talking to our young children with visual impairments, just that we need to pick our moments.

Slow down when interacting with a child. We must be willing to wait and give the child time to take a turn in the interaction. When playing with a child, Dr. Nielsen tells us to give the child time to explore an object alone, rather than jumping in and showing her/him how to use it. At a conference during a child demonstration, Dr. Nielsen offered a battery-operated facial brush to a child. She let him explore the brush in his own way. He held the brush against various body parts, moved it from hand to hand, turned it over, put it on a tray, moved it against other objects on the tray, picked it back up, put it to his lips, and did many other things with it. Then he turned to Dr. Nielsen to share the experience. That was the moment she talked with him about the facial brush and the things he had done while playing with it.

Let the child have control of her/his own hands. Dr. Nielsen feels it is important when we are interacting with a child who has a visual impairment, that we not take her/his hand and bring it to the materials. Instead, we need to develop alternate strategies for presenting objects to the child (e.g., gently touching the toy to the child's arm or leg to alert her/him to the object's presence, making noise with the object to arouse her/his curiosity to encourage her/him to reach out, placing several objects to touch the child's body or very close to it so any movements s/he might make will bring her/his body in contact with an object, etc.)

Dr. Nielsen has developed several pieces of equipment to provide children with visual impairments the opportunities to actively participate with their environment. One of these "special environments" is the "Little Room." The "Little Room" consists of a metal frame supporting three side panels and a Plexiglas ceiling from which a variety of objects are suspended which the child finds interesting and enjoyable. This gives the child the opportunity to experience the properties of objects, to compare different objects, and try out different things to do with the object on his own without adults interpreting that experience for him. Since the objects are stable, it allows the child to repeat his actions with an object as many times as he needs to, at one to two-second intervals, without dropping and losing it. The immediate repetition enables the child to store the information gained from the experiences in his memory.


Nielsen, Lilli. Environmental intervention for visually impaired preschool children with additional disabilities, VIP Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 3.

Nielsen, Lilli. The blind child's ability to listen, VIP Newsletter, Vol. 10, No. 3.

Nielsen, Lilli. Active learning, VIP Newsletter, Vol. 10, No. 1.

Nielsen, Lilli. Space and Self, SIKON, 1992.

Nielsen, Lilli. Early Learning Step by Step, SIKON, 1993.

Nielsen, Lilli. Are You Blind?, SIKON, 1990.

Notes taken from lectures given by Dr. Lilli Nielsen at conferences in Albuquerque, New Mexico, September of 1992; in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in October 1993; and Dallas, Texas, in May 1994.

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