The Philosophy of the Approach of Active Learning

By: Dr. Lilli Nielsen

A young boy takes objects out of a tray and puts them in bowls on either side of his seat.
A young boy takes objects out of a tray and puts them in bowls on either side of his seat.

The philosophy of the approach of Active Learning is to give the child the opportunity to learn, and so step by step, achieve the pre-requisites that would enable him/her to learn at higher and higher levels.

The approach of Active Learning developed primarily while working with children who were blind with additional disabilities such as mental impairments, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism and hearing loss. While developing the approach it was discovered that infants and toddlers with vision impairment would also benefit from having optimal opportunities to learn, 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 have opportunities to learn from his/her own activities, and to do so in all aspects.

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/she is eating or communicating. Learning to move arms, hands and fingers are important pre-requisites for learning about the surrounding world, as well as to achieve daily living skills, and so become as independent as possible. This learning occurs while a child is playing, rather than while being handled by an adult or while an adult is guiding his/her hands. 

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 perceptualyzing aides (equipment) were designed. The perceptualyzing aid called the “Little Room” facilitates the child’s learning of spatial relations and object concept, gives the child the opportunity to explore and experiment with objects of which the Little Room has been equipped. By means of this, the child develops fine motor movements and learns to be active without help from anyone. The perceptualyzing aides called the “Support Bench” and the “Essef Board” facilitate the child learning to sit unsupported and to develop the gross motor movements necessary for learning to stand and walk.

The perceptualyzing aid called the HOPSA-dress facilitates the child’s opportunity to achieve sufficient muscle strength for bearing his own weight, for learning to balance, to stand 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 disabilities in any child with special needs makes him/her even more unique. The intervention for facilitating the child’s learning must, for this 2 reason, be established individually. The role of the adult must also be considered while interacting with the child. In some situations the adult should only act as the provider of materials and be ready to share with the child when he/she wants to share his/her experiences. In other situations the adult should contribute by taking a turn when the child wants him/her to do so. And sometimes the adult should be the one to introduce a new game by playing the game and letting the child participate when he or she is ready to do so.

While implementing the approach of ACTIVE LEARNING 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 or engaging in self-stimulatory, self-injurious or aggressive behaviors. Interactions, during which the adult performs most of the activities, or refrains from waiting for the child to initiate his/her part of the interaction, fail to give the child 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 whenever awake, restrains the child’s opportunity to exercise various gross motor movements and to learn about the external world. Instead of focusing on all the things the child with multiple disabilities is unable to do, we should see him/her as an individual who is just as eager to learn as is any child without disabilities. Furthermore, parents to a child with disabilities are just as eager to see their child learn as the parents to a child without disabilities.

Finally, the philosophy behind the approach of ACTIVE LEARNING is that, if given opportunity to learn from his/her own active exploration and examination, the child will achieve skills that become a part of his/her personality, and so are natural for him/her to use in interactions with others, and of fulfillment of his/her own needs, and will gradually let the child react relevantly to instructions and education, in other words to be as independent as possible.


Lilli Nielsen, 1977, SIKON: The Comprehending Hand.

Lilli Nielsen, 1990, SIKON: Are you Blind?

Lilli Nielsen, 1992, SIKON: Space and Self.

Lilli Nielsen, 1989, SIKON: Spatial Relations in Congenitally Blind Infants.

Lilli Nielsen, 1993, SIKON: Early Learning – Step by Step.

Lilli Nielsen, 1998, SIKON: The FIELA Curriculum – 730 Learning Environments.

Lilli Nielsen, 2000, SIKON: Functional Scheme – Levels: 0 – 48 months.

J. van der Poel, 1997, SIKON: Visual impairment – Understanding the needs of young children.

Note: This article was reprinted with permission in a handout for a workshop hosted by TSBVI Outreach in 2003. It first appeared in VIP Newsletter, Volume 10, No. 1, April 1994, published by The Blind Children’s Fund

Pinterest Philosophy of Active Learning
Pinterest Philosophy of Active Learning