Getting Started

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Active Learning Pinterest board

Find great ideas for using Active Learning methods and equipment on our Pinterest page.

What is Active Learning?

Active Learning is an approach based on the work of Dr. Lilli Nielsen.  It is not just a piece of equipment, such as a "Little Room" or a HOPSA dress, but rather it refers to a total approach for promoting the development of individuals with severe multiple disabilities.  It contains an assessment, a curriculum, specifically-designed equipment, and instructional strategies that support learners to be active participants in their surroundings.

This approach is closely tied to evidence-based research, such as the work of Jean Piaget's developmental stages of learners. It views the child's development holistically, including not only motor, cognitive, and sensory skills, but also social and emotional development.

Lives Changed At Penrickton Schools

Watch this video to see how Active Learning is used at the Penrickton Center for Blind Children. 

What type of learner benefits from an Active Learning approach?

Dr. Lilli NielsenThe Active Learning approach can be used in conjunction with other approaches, such as the work of Dr. Jan van Dijk. Though initially this approach was designed for individuals with visual impairments and deafblindness, it has proven to be effective with individuals with other signicant disabilities, such as autism and cerebral palsy.

It is an approach that can be used with all learners, but is most effective for those who have significant multiple disabilities and are functioning in the 0-48 month developmental level.  The Active Learning approach can be used with individuals with various visual conditions, such as CVI (Cortical Visual Impairment) and ONH (Optic Nerve Hypoplasia), as well as with those who are deafblind or medically fragile.

We invite you to explore the world of Active Learning!  


jack progression

                   Watch this video to see how a boy progressed from lying prone on a Resonance Board to being upright in a HOPSA Dress to sitting independently!  These videos were made over a 4 year period.  The boy in this video is the same one as the news video above, in which his mother discusses what a difference Active Learning has made for her son.

Jack's progression from passive to active learner is evident in the video. In the beginning clips Jack does not sit independently and has very little ability to move himself into different positions to explore and experiment with things around him. Over time, through his own actions, Jack builds motor and sensory skills as he becomes more engaged with the world and people. These interactions allow him to develop fundamental concepts necessary for all future learning. As he moves more vocalizations and communication skills develop. His interactions with others helps to develop critical social and emotional skills as well. 

Video Demonstrating "Before" and "After" Using an Active Learning Approach

These two short video clips illustrate how important adult expectations are and what a difference the environment makes in encouraging learning and active engagement.  In the first clip a young boy lies on a swing in a supine position. His lower body is covered with a blanket. In the second clip, just a few minutes later, the blanket has been removed and Active Learning materials have been placed all around the boy.   Notice the difference that expectations and appropriate materials make!

rylan after

  A young boy lies on his back on a large swing, surrounded by Active Learning materials.

Active Learning Space Flyer

We invite you to download this flyer to share with others.

al flyer

Download flyer in PDF format or as Word document.

Permission Forms

We welcome ideas from the field!  Please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you have an activity you would like to share.  Download our permission form, if you would like to share a video or photo.  PDF  Word format


Here are a list of sources for purchasing some of the specific materials shown on this website.

sources al materials collage

Able Net Inc. -  1-800-322-0956
Switches/computer/communication devices
Achievement Products 
Products for children with special needs
Adaptations by Adrian – 1-888-214-8372 
Adapted clothes- ponchos and outerwear
Benik Corporation – 
Benik Vests, elbow/hand splints
Brookstone – 
Hand-held massagers
Discovery Toys –
Discovery Links
Easy Access Clothing – 
Adapted clothes

seedpod rattle

Switches and adapted toys
Fat Brain Toys 
1-800-590-5987 and International Phone: 1-402-779-3181 
Flaghouse - (Catch, Flying Start, Giant Leaps, Going Strong) 
Special needs products
Guitar Center 
Used musical instruments
Seed pod rattle              
Children's toys
Imagine the Challenge
Children's toys
Inclusive TLC – 
Switches, computer, communication devices
Kaplan Early Learning Company
Developmentally-appropriate educational products
Educational products
Music is
Seed Rattles, Paddle Drums, thunder tubes, Cabasa, Afuche
Kits for thumb pianos, harps, etc.
Patterson Medical (Sammons/Preston) – 
1000 Remington Blvd., Suite 210 Bolingbrook, IL 60440-5117
Inner-lip or Inside-edge Plates
School Specialty – (Abilitations, Integrations, Special Needs, Physical Education) 
Ping Pong Balls by gross, other special needs products
Shindigz – 
Mylar curtain hanging in Movement Therapy room
Southpaw –
Track systems – rotational devices, Z-vibes, Snow Mobility, Velcro sticky wall, marble Sensory Ring
TFH Fun & Achievement –
Activity arches/walls, Musical Round-About, Wall Paletto, head massager, mini massager
West Music – 
Remo- Lynn Kleiner Gathering Drum, Seed Rattles, Paddle Drums, Thunder Tubes, Canary Sticks, Desk Bells
Free shipping!

 gathering drum




Gathering drum 


Specific Items and Where to Find Them 

elysium drumCheaper versions do not have the spring action in them.  Steel tongue drums are significantly cheaper, but are not as large, overall flat so limited tactile features, and are heavier thus not giving the same quality of sound, sensory feedback, or movement options.
Zaphir (or) Shanti Chimes
Each color has a specific set of tones inside them that are pleasing to each other when they ring. Each color chime has a different set of tones. Available from a number of sites, including


Girl sitting in wheelchair in front of a position boardActive Learning is more than equipment or materials.  It is an approach that can be used to implement instruction in general curriculum and expanded core curriculum, and also to support therapies such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy, and speech therapy.  These ideas can also be used in the home or community.

Some things to keep in mind when using an Active Learning approach in any type of instruction, therapy, or play activity:

  • Match your pace to the learner when you interact.
  • Follow the learner's lead in any activity.
  • Don't over-react or over praise the learner - if the child becomes upset, simply move on or if the child demonstrates a skill simply comment on what he/she has done.
  • Be aware of the type of skills the learner is working on in the activity or environment, e.g., in the Little Room the focus is on tactile/motor/auditory not visual skills.
  • Select materials that are based on the child's sensory preferences and developmental level.
  • Arrange materials so the learner has physical access to explore independently.
  • Position the learner so he/she can move optimally.
  • Remain silent during the child's exploration - share simple feedback when the learner takes a break or at the end of the activity.
  • Allow plenty of time for the learner to respond - for some learners this may be minutes rather than seconds.
  • Recognize that the child needs to work at their current skill level and will attempt higher level skills when the learning cycle has been completed (see Dynamic Learning Circle).
  • Observe the child and your own interactions - videotape the child and/or the adult during instruction periodically.
  • Use a wide variety of materials with differing properties.
  • Change only one feature at a time in the materials or environment.

You may want to use this Active Learning Planning Sheet form to help your team get started planning for your student.

Word Version

PDF Verson

Rylan Before & After

Description:  Two clips illustrate how important adult expectations are and what a difference the environment makes in encouraging learning and active engagement.

In the first clip a young boy lies on a swing in a supine position. His lower body is covered with a blanket.  In the second clip, just a few minutes later, the blanket has been removed and Active Learning materials have been placed all around the boy.  A bead clamp is suspended above his legs, an elastic board under his right arm, and a door stop board under his left arm. There is silver metallic crinkle paper under his head.

rylan after
Downloads: Transcript (txt) Audio (mp3)

 Pinterest collage of implementation strategies

Active Learning is an instruction approach for individuals of all ages who are still developmentally in the sensorimotor and pre-operational stages of learning. It can be utilized to teach most any content at a developmentally appropriate level for these learners. In the videos below you will see an Active Learning approach to teaching a science lesson about plants and their growth cycle.  What both of the students are doing is the basis for all scientific learning – observation, exploration, experimentation, and the development of hypotheses about how the world works.

However, we still need to be able to point to specific skills from the General Curriculum to show this connection. 

The Science Lesson 

Here is a simple science lesson taught in an environment using a HOPSA dress.

Play video in a separate tab/window.

Here is a similar lesson taught using a Support Bench.

Science Lesson Using a Support Bench 

Play video in a separate tab/window

Description: A science lesson facilitated by using an Active Learning support bench.

Learning about Fossils

In this example a student in a 6th grade classroom, the rest of the class was studying fossils.  Using an Active Learning approach and focusing on pre-requisite skills, this student explored fossils with the goals of increasing tactile exploration, eye-hand coordination, use of two hands together at midline, and comparing textures (rough/smooth, soft/hard, etc.)  The adult could also have a variety of brushes and simply play with them by brushing the fossils in order to add adult-child interaction.

Note that in the photos below, a small paintbrush was added and then a headlamp was introduced to encourage directed visual gaze.

Student exploring fossil using an Active Learning approach     Student examining fossils


Student uses two hands to explore fossil    Small paintbrush in tub of sand


Close up view of student wearing headlamp    Using a headlamp to look at fossils 

Sample General Curriculum Skills in Science

What follows below are some sample skills in the General Curriculum used in Texas (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) in the area of Science at various levels from Pre-K through High School. The activities shown in the video tape relates to these skills.    

Pre-requisite Skills in Science

Energy & Matter: Characteristics and Properties of Matter

  • compare and contrast a variety of mixtures and solutions such as rocks in sand, sand in water, or sugar in water
  • measure, compare, and contrast physical properties of matter, including size, mass, volume, states (solid, liquid, gas), temperature, magnetism, and the ability to sink or float

Organisms & Environment: Identify How Organisms Meet Their Basic Needs

  • identify and compare the parts of plants
  • identify parts of plants such as roots, stem and leaves and parts of animals such as head, eyes, and limbs

-       from the Texas Curriculum Framework Pre-requisite Skills in Science

Sample Science, Grade 1, Curriculum Goals

(5)  Matter and energy. The student knows that objects have properties and patterns. The student is expected to:

(A)  classify objects by observable properties of the materials from which they are made such as larger and smaller, heavier and lighter, shape, color, and texture; and

(B)  predict and identify changes in materials caused by heating and cooling such as ice melting, water freezing, and water evaporating.

Sample Science, Grade 3, Curriculum Goals

(5)  Matter and energy. The student knows that matter has measurable physical properties and those properties determine how matter is classified, changed, and used. The student is expected to:

(A)  measure, test, and record physical properties of matter, including temperature, mass, magnetism, and the ability to sink or float;

 (D)  explore and recognize that a mixture is created when two materials are combined such as gravel and sand and metal and plastic paper clips.

Sample Science, Grade 5, Curriculum Goals

Matter and energy. The student knows that matter has measurable physical properties and those properties determine how matter is classified, changed, and used. The student is expected to:

(A)  classify matter based on physical properties, including mass, magnetism, physical state (solid, liquid, and gas), relative density (sinking and floating), solubility in water, and the ability to conduct or insulate thermal energy or electric energy;

(C)  demonstrate that some mixtures maintain physical properties of their ingredients such as iron filings and sand; and

(D)  identify changes that can occur in the physical properties of the ingredients of solutions such as dissolving salt in water or adding lemon juice to water.

-       from Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills §112.16

Sample Physics, High School, Curriculum Goals

At the high school level areas of science become more specific (e.g., chemistry, physics, biology).  Still all science areas continue to focus on observation, exploration, experimentation and the development and testing of hypothesizes. 

(3)  Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A)  in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

 - from Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills, High School Physics, §112.39.

Sample Goal Reflecting the Active Learning Approach

An IEP goal to address science for a sensorimotor level learner would be easy to write and might look like this. 


By the end of the IEP completion date, given a variety of materials used in various Science units (as well as other materials) in combination with perceptualizing aids, the student will experiment and explore the properties and characteristics of organic and inorganic objects and materials through tactile exploration using her mouth, lips, tongue, hands, arms, legs and feet for at least 20 minutes of a 30 minute period.

This goal also provides a goal related to the Expanded Core Curriculum on developing sensory efficiency.


                                   Pinterest collage for Teaching Science using Active Learning approach              support bench science collage