The philosophy of active learning is to give the child the opportunity to learn, and so step by step, achieve the pre-requisites that would enable learning at higher and higher levels. The approach of active learning was developed over the past 30 years while working with children who were blind with additional disabilities such as intellectual impairment, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism and hearing loss. While developing this approach, it was discovered that infants and toddlers with a vision impairment would also benefit from having optimal opportunity to learn from their play rather than from being trained or taught. Although physical contact with the parents and other adults is important, it is considered even more important that the child with learning difficulties has opportunities to learn from his own activities, and to do so in all aspects of development.
Learning to move mouth, lips and tongue are important pre-requisites for learning to chew, babble and talk. This learning occurs while the child is playing rather than while he is eating or communicating.
Learning to move arms, hands and fingers are important pre-requisites for learning about the surrounding world, and to achieve daily living skills, to become as independent as possible. This occurs while the child is playing, rather than being handled by an adult, or while the adult is guiding his hands.
Learning to move legs and feet are important pre-requisites for learning to sit, stand and walk unsupported. This learning occurs if the child has opportunities to achieve muscle strength through many different gross motor activities necessary to achieve weight bearing.
Learning to combine information gained from acting sense modalities is the pre-requisite for learning object concept and for establishing a memory that enables the child to recognize, associate and generalize. This occurs if the child has opportunities to repeat and to compare his experiences at the time that he chooses.
Learning to initiate is the pre-requisite for social development and independence. To facilitate this learning environmental intervention is usually necessary. For this purpose several perceptualising saides have been designed and are listed in the following.
The ‘Little Room’ facilitates the child’s learning of spatial relations and object concept, gives the learner the opportunity to explore and experiment with fine motor movements and learns to be active without help from anybody.
The ‘Support Bench’ and the ‘Essef Board’ facilitate the child’s learning to sit unsupported and to develop the gross motor movements necessary for learning to crawl, stand and walk.
The ‘Hopsa-dress’ facilitates the child’s opportunity to achieve sufficient muscle strength for bearing his own weight, for learning to balance, to stand, step and to walk. Several other specific materials and setting of environments are explained in the books Space and Self, Early Learning Step by Step and The FIELA Curriculum 730 Learning Environments.
Every child is unique and the complexity of handicaps in any child with disabilities makes them even more unique. The intervention for facilitating the child’s learning must, for this reason, be done individually. Also, the role of the adult while interacting with the child needs to be considered. In some situations the adult should only act as the provider of materials and be ready to share with the child when he wants to share his experiences. In other situations the adult should contribute by taking her turn when the child wants them to do so. Sometimes the adult should be the one to introduce a new game but playing the game and letting the child participate when he or she is ready to do so.
While implementing the Active Learning approach it is necessary to know as much as possible about what the child is already able to do and to know how infants and toddlers learn.
Activities that are too easy to perform or materials that are so well known that they do not challenge the child fail to facilitate the child’s learning. Activities that are too difficult for the child to perform or materials that the child is unable to handle may result in the child refusing to be active. Interactions during which the adult performs most of the activities or refrains from waiting for the child to initiate part of the interaction fail to give the child the opportunity to learn to initiate. Instead, the child may become stereotyped, passive or unable to perform any skill without being prompted.
To be held in an adult’s arms, or to sit in a wheelchair when awake, restricts the child’s opportunity to exercise various gross motor movements and to learn about the external would. Instead of focussing on all the things a child with multiple impairments is unable to do, we should see him as an individual just as eager to learn as any child without impairments. Furthermore, parents of a child with disabilities are just as eager to see their child learn as are parents of a child without disabilities.
Finally, the philosophy behind the Active Learning approach is that, if given the opportunity to learn from his own active exploration and examination, the child will achieve skills that become a part of his personality and are natural for him to use in interaction with others and for fulfilment of his own needs. He will gradually learn to react relevantly to instructions and education, and to develop as much independence as possible.
Lilli Nielsen - March 2000