Helping young visually impaired children to learn

Scaffolding a child’s learning

Compensating for a lack of vision

  • A good deal of young children’s learning typically occurs incidentally, through watching what other people do. Many things don’t need to be taught – children pick them up through imitating what they have seen. Adults working with children who are blind need to be aware of this, and compensate for their lack of implicit knowledge of how to do things: how to hold a drum in one hand and strike it with a beater in the other, for example; how to find the controls on a keyboard; how to strum a guitar.
  • In the early years, many such strategies will be conveyed through co-active movements – as far as possible with the child’s hand over the adults – rather than through language (alone).

The use of language

  • Using too many words may confuse the child when they need to devote all their attention to taking in information in tactile and haptic form. Learning to associate words with objects and actions is itself a complex task in the absence of vision and needs to be considered as an important developmental area in its own right.
  • Above all, don’t mask musical sounds with a verbal explanation! Let the child relish the sounds they are making and then reflect on them afterwards using words, if appropriate.

The environment

Organise the child’s environment to promote autonomous learning and independence

  • A child who can’t see necessarily has to obtain information about the world around them through their other senses – particularly hearing and touch. Their learning and independence will be greatly aided if adults organise their immediate environment by de-cluttering (whereby unimportant objects are removed, enabling the child to devote their full attention to those that matter), by arranging things systematically (so that items that belong together are presented together on a tray or in a shallow box, for example) and by ensuring consistency (so that the child learns where things are located). While a sighted child will notice straight away if something is in a different position from usual, as far as a blind child is concerned, if they can’t reach out and find it with their hands, it may as well not exist at all.
  • Items that feel the same but are actually different (such as the keys on a keyboard), can be labelled using different textures. These are easier to distinguish than tactile shapes.

Observe how the child explores new objects and support them in acquiring information through touch

  • Watch how the child feels new objects with their fingers. Are they getting the ‘full picture’ by scanning the object as a whole first, or are they just attending to certain small details without ever appreciating its overall shape, for instance? You can watch Joseph, an older blind child, exploring new instruments through touch. Joseph's Story
  • Help the child to find out about musical instruments by guiding them gently to explore the entire thing before finding out where particular elements fit into its overall design. For example, assist the child in finding where the controls of a keyboard are in relation to the keys, and where buttons are located beside one another.

Gauging progress

Use the Sounds of Intent in the Early Years framework of musical development to gauge a child’s level of musical development

  • The Sounds of Intent in the Early Years (SoI-EY) framework of musical development sets out how all young children engage with sound and music, including those who are visually impaired.
  • The time up to three months before birth, when the baby is still in womb, before hearing gets going, is said to be Level 1 of a child's musical development. There are four more SoI-EY levels that can be identified in the early years. These are:

  • Level 2, 'Sounds interesting'
  • Level 3, 'Copy me, copy you'
  • Level 4, 'Bits of pieces', and
  • Level 5, 'Whole songs, in time and in tune'.

The four levels are divided into three domains:

  • Reactive, ‘R’, listening and responding to sound and music
  • Proactive, ‘P’, making sounds and music alone, and
  • Interactive, ’I’, making sounds and music with others.

  • Placing the three domains over the four levels gives 12 segments that make up the SoI-EY framework. These are set out in detail on other pages of this website.