Future Reflections                                                                                         Summer/Fall 2005

(back) (contents) (next)

It Only Takes A Spark To Get The Fire Roaring

by Sandra Dunnam

Editor’s Note: Sandra Dunnam is a professional in the area of blindness and a parent of a blind daughter. Dunnam’s daughter, Jennifer, is now grown, out on her own, and, as Sandra will proudly tell you, making more money than her mom does! Early this year, Sandra attended the North American National Active Learning Convention in California. Dr. Lilli Nielsen, inventor of the Little Room and developer of the Active Learning approach for blind and multiply impaired children, planned to make this her last workshop in the United States before retiring. I asked several people for their impression of the conference, and Sandra came through for me. Here is what she has to say about the conference, and about her experiences with the Active Learning approach:

The Little Room, outfited with active learning objects and scratch boards, is placed on a Resonance Board for maximum effectiveness.
The Little Room, outfited with active learning objects and scratch boards, is placed on a Resonance Board for maximum effectiveness.

My name is Sandra Dunnam, and I am an Early Interventionist for the Louisiana Center for the Blind Infant/Toddler Vision Service Program. There are five of us in the program and we cover the state of Louisiana, providing this service for Louisiana Early Steps.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Dr. Lilli Nielsen workshop at a National Federation of the Blind Annual Convention in Atlanta. Later, in Future Reflections, I read more articles about her methods and materials. I was so inspired, I jumped at the chance in 2002 to attend a one-day workshop on Active Learning for Students with Significant

Disabilities held in Alexandria, Louisiana. This workshop was sponsored by the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the presenters were itinerant teachers and Active Learning practitioners, Gigi Newton and Stacey Schafer.

These experiences allowed me to learn much about the Active Learning tools and techniques I could use with the infants and toddlers with whom I work. With support from my husband, Butch, I got my first resonance board (he made it). A resonance board vibrates with the slightest movement and provides instant tactile and auditory feedback to the child sitting or lying on it. We bought the resonance board plans for $5 from the LilliWorks Active Learning Foundation, and it has been worth every penny and much, much more! Those few valuable resources were the beginning of the ‘spark’ in my career.

Thanks to the sponsorship of the NFB Louisiana Center for the Blind, I was able to further my training by attending the North American Active Learning Convention in the San Francisco Bay area for three full days this past February. The theme for this, Dr. Nielsen’s final training session in the United States was “ Lighting the Fire.”

Dr. Lilli Nielsen developed the Active Learning approach based upon a lifetime of work and research in the education of visually impaired children with additional disabilities. The essential active learning principal is to create an environment that nurtures and supports the learner so that the learner can take action on his or her own initiative to learn.

There were so many memorable events throughout this convention. For me, the highlight was watching the live demonstrations in which a family member (one of the convention participants) would bring his or her child with significant disabilities on stage for an Active Learning session. One child was put in a Square Hammock with an Essef Board by her feet. The Essef Board is highly responsive to any pressure from the child’s feet, and thus engages the child in lower motor activities. Another child was put in a HOPSA Dress with the Essef Board under her feet. The HOPSA dress provides vertical orientation and support with the legs bearing weight. An easel made out of cork board with multiple items attached to it with elastic was put in front, near her hands and arms, so that even the slightest movement would put her in touch with something. Another child was put on a support bench. A support bench allows the child to lie prone with hands free, thus promoting midline hand activity. All of these children had a resonance board under them for added tactile and auditory feedback and all of them were surrounded by active learning toys or objects. Active learning objects are any household items or toys (homemade or commercial) that promote active exploration and engage the senses. They can be such things as bowls, pans, crinkly Mylar, beads, toys, and scratchboards.

During the live sessions, the room was filled with close to two hundred adults. We sat quietly and watched a trained, experienced Active Learning professional, who had never worked with this child, give opportunities for that learner to experience learning and independence through active, self-initiated movement. This professional did not interrupt, talk, or manipulate. She kept the toys at the child’s hands and feet, and constantly observed reactions in order to determine whether to add a new item; take one away; determine if a vocalization required a response or not; assess whether the child was bored, needed a break to rest, or had enough and was finished for the day. Active Learning as a philosophy means, among other things, that a child during their waking moments is hardly ever without a selection of toys or other interesting objects at their feet and hands.

In one meeting, Lilli stressed the importance of not altering her design of the resonance board or any of her equipment. She did extensive research and went through many prototypes to determine the optimal design for each piece of Active Learning apparatus. Since these children have so many sensory and motor deficits, they require the highest quality of equipment that gives the very best feedback possible. Even the amount of sanding and layers of paint is important. In other words, if you are making a piece (such as the resonance board) from plans you purchase, follow the directions exactly! If you buy equipment, make sure it is the authorized, original design. She also stressed that no ‘comfort,’ such as pillows or quilts, be added to equipment such as the support bench. These, too, detract from and diminish the effectiveness of the equipment. Because of the conference, I know that the resonance board my husband, Butch, made for me is the correct, original design.

During our evening tracks at the conference, I attended Rand Wrobel’s session, “Implementing Active Learning in the Home.” He talked about auditory and tactile primacy, stressed the importance of not interrupting while the child is engaged in active learning, of keeping your hands off the child’s hands, and he particularly emphasized the point that everyone can learn. I plan to read Lilli Nielsen books to increase my understanding of these important topics. Also, I attended Diane Montgomery and Lorana Enroth’s session, “Starting Active Learning.” They shared information encouraging the use of common household items as learning tools. Examples of such items include metal measuring spoons, wooden spoons, metal bowls, melamine plates and cups, magnetic items, brushes (whisks, lint brush, bottle brush, etc.), trays, and 18-ring binders, to name a few. We also learned how to make and use a buncher band. The purpose of the buncher band is to keep an object strapped to the palm of the child’s hand so that even when the child releases his or her grip, the object stays in place ready to be gripped when the child is ready or able to close his or her hand around it again. The band is made up of three straps of elastic with buttonholes and three buttons. One of the straps goes over the top of hand and the second and third wrap around the item, keeping the object close to the palm, always in place for the child to grasp and release as the child chooses, or as spastic movement will allow.

The last day was unforgettable. Dr. Lilli Nielsen did a one-on-one with each family that attended the conference with their children. Each child had the opportunity to have time on all of the Active Learning equipment. Dr. Lilli spoke with each family, observed the child, and gave ideas to encourage learning. To watch these children react to their new environment set my heart on ‘fire’ with the desire to spread the good news of the potential of the Active Learning experience I saw demonstrated so effectively at this conference.

I am home now, and have so many people to thank for a wonderful conference. The first is, obviously, Dr. Lilli Nielsen for sharing her forty-plus years of experience and the development of the Active Learning approach at the conference. She has nine books and two videos, which I will purchase, read or view, and then share with the families on my caseload. Others I wish to thank are Barbara Cheadle, Pam Allen, and my husband.

Thanks go to Barbara for disseminating information about Active Learning through Future Reflections and for her promotion of, endorsement of, and attendance at, the North American Learning Conference. I am especially grateful to Pam Allen, Director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, who is very supportive of our infant/toddler program. She believes in the importance of the program because the children are our future. Finally, thanks to my husband who comes with me to these conferences and then comes home and helps build the equipment that I need to implement the new ideas.

As an itinerant consultant traveling to over fifty homes once a month, I plan to use the following equipment: Active Learning household objects and toys, the Resonance Board, the Essef Board, wood trays, Velcro vests, and a cork board. I will encourage families to start collecting the easy Active Learning items and teach them how to use them at home throughout the month between my visits. I will especially stress the importance of allowing the child control of her/his own hands, and the importance of exploration of real objects, and the need for visually impaired children to always have a selection of toys or objects within easy reach of feet, hands, or mouth for stimulation, exploration, and learning.

“Lighting the Fire: Igniting the North American Active Learning Agenda,” based on the quote from Yeats, “Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire,” was the theme of the conference and should be the motto for all of us. It will be mine! With all the wonderful information from the conference, my spark has turned into a flame. I cannot wait to spread the news about the Active Learning approach.

For more information about Active Learning contact the LilliWorks Foundation at <www.lilliworks.org>.

(back) (contents) (next)