Why Do We Need a Space for Active Learning?

A child with blindness / low vision or combined vision and hearing loss has a need to
explore safely in a space that is highly responsive to the smallest movements.

“She has demonstrated consistent intentional movement,
which we saw nowhere else but in the Space for Active Learning.”
– Teacher who set up a SAL

How does a child learn what a hair brush is if she can’t see it being used? If she has some vision, but the shape of the hair brush blends in with the background of the room, how does she know that her father is brushing his hair? How does she know that everyone in her family uses this thing we call a hair brush? Now imagine the child has a combined vision and hearing loss. How much information is she getting about what happens across the room?

In a Space for Active Learning (SAL) a child may move her arm, head, leg or body and cause a bell to ring, or a hair brush to tap her hand. This is a way to begin to learn about objects: how they feel, how they move, whether they are cool or warm, and where they are in space. The SAL gives a child a chance to problem-solve at his or her own pace.

Things to Remember:

  • A child can enter the Space for Active Learning on his own or with your help.
  • Stay nearby for safety. Observe, take notes, read. Let the child find things without you helping.
  • You can talk about it later. Talking or loud activities may distract a child from exploring in the SAL.

You and your child’s team (physical therapist, occupational therapist) can keep track of your child’s actions in the Space for Active Learning. Use the Summary Data Form and SAL Data Form to keep track. You can see how the child is developing:

  • Anticipation
  • Memory (recognizing objects)
  • Spatial awareness

Note: Using a Space for Active Learning may prevent the development of “blindisms” (poking, biting, “self-stimulation”) which occur when a child needs to move or get sensory input, but because of blindness/low vision can only access his own legs, arms or face.

Example of an Active Learning Space

Example of one kind of Space for Active Learning


My Space: Christopher

First SAL Experience

  • Daily if possible — at least four times during a full school day.
  • At least 15 minutes and up to as much as 40-45 minutes. Note: some children do almost nothing that you can observe for the first 15 minutes! Every time, wait for them to initiate.
  • This depends on the child and what level of stimulation or feedback the child needs.
  • The child needs the opportunity to experience things and events in his own way and at his own pace. He needs to know that everything that happens in the Space for Active Learning is caused by him, not another person. This distancing from others is crucial for the child to learn that he is separate from other people. Eventually he will understand that symbols, words, and signs can represent things, people, events and experiences. The Space for Active Learning gives the child more direct and consistent access to his surroundings.


Influences on the Development of Symbolic Communication: Distancing

By Susan Bruce

This article explains the need for a child to learn that he is separate from other people and things, in order to begin to build concepts and symbols.


“Distancing is a process that all children go through. Through distancing, children learn that they are separate from other people and things, and that things (objects) can be represented abstractly with symbols, words or signs. Distancing is… often a challenge for children with deaf-blindness because limited vision and hearing prevent full access to their surroundings.”

-Susan Bruce

Space for Active Learning (SAL) can assist a child in learning about physical boundaries between self and other (or can assist a child in learning that he is separate).

Progression of Active Learning in a SAL

by Kathee Scoggin

Children’s actions (behaviors) change as they spend time in individually designed Space for Active Learning.

A. The child’s unplanned movement results in awareness of items.

B. The child intentionally touches items by batting or even grasping them.

C. The child begins grasping and letting go of the items or keeping hold of them.

D. When the child begins to repeat the action, it is a surprise and then once she anticipates what happens with the repetition, the child may respond with vocalizations and facial expressions of pleasure or excitement.

E. The child begins to handle the items in a different way. He may notice other things that he didn’t in the beginning such as the sound of the item. He may begin to integrate two sensory modalities such as kinesthetic and auditory. This may turn into a game for the child. Other sensory modalities may be integrated too, such as smell or vision.

F. The child begins to compare the qualities of items: what sounds do the
items make? How they are visually the same and different, if the child has sufficient
functional vision to compare. How does this one feel, compared to this one?

These steps lead to the formation of concepts for a child with blindness/low vision or a combined vision and hearing loss.

Considerations and Guidelines for what to place in the Space for Active Learning (SAL)

by Kathee Scoggin

Spaces for Active Learning (SAL) need to be an enjoyable place for the child/youth to be of benefit. Find out what items the child likes first by trying different items.

Since grasping is an important skill, place items in the SAL that are appropriate to the size of the child/youth’s hands and feet (and any barriers the child has). For example, for some children/youths, they may not be able to hold open their whole hand, so stringy items like mylar and beads are easier to grasp.

The items you place in the SAL should have varying qualities of:

  • texture ( smooth, rough, bumpy, metal, wood)
  • touch ( with hands, feet, mouth)
  • weight ( heavy, light)
  • temperature (cold, warm)
  • shape changing ( Hoberman ball, gel/water filled balloons)
  • smell ( invigorating, calming sachets- be sure the child/youth has no allergies)
  • taste
  • vibration ( corrugated cardboard, cake cooling rack)

There should be enough items that the child/youth has a choice of what to do in the SAL.

Other skills to consider when placing items in the SAL:

  • Counting
  • Matching
  • Sequencing