About AL

What is Active Learning?

As the name implies, Active Learning revolves around the learner being active.

Active Learning (AL) … for Development, with blindness, cerebral palsy, developmental delay, deaf-blindness …

There are many of different kinds of “Active Learning” for typical learners. This kind of “Active Learning” is designed for, and reaches learners with significant disabilities. Originated by Dr. Lilli Nielsen, the Danish expert, AL is suitable for learners who have a developmental age of 4 or under.

Active Learning (AL) Basics

AL Emphasizes Toys with Sound and Touch

Most AL toys are household items, all with interesting auditory and tactile qualities. From brushes to bead chains to walnuts, there are zillions of interesting objects. Soft and quiet toys don’t provide the interesting feedback so much.

AL Emphasizes The Learner is the Active One

AL creates environments that feedback and support the learner so that they can take action on their own initiative to learn. No hand-over-hand, no interrupting with feedback or cheer leading. AL provides the learner their own time and space to do their own thing.

AL Emphasizes Everyone can Learn

Active Learning reaches learners at the severe end of the disabilities spectrum. If a learner is not learning, the issue is always the environment isn’t tuned well enough (or the learner is fighting for survival).

AL Equipment to Support and Feedback

Available AL equipment includes:

  • The Little Room, for laying down and sitting play
  • The Resonance Board, a vibrational feedback base
  • The Support Bench, for prone play with arms and legs free
  • The HOPSA Dress, a vertical suspension jacket
  • The SPG (Scratch, Pull and Grab) Board, a modular play board.

Some of the equipment can be made at home with authorized plans, and/or kits are available.

Applying ‘Active’ to the Passive

It is rather ironic that while we recognize that people learn best when they actually do something, yet it hasn’t really been applied to learners that need it the most- those with multiple disabilities. It took a special person like Lilli Nielsen to fully appreciate this and apply it to learners with multiple disabilities.

It is probably very natural, because learners with disabilities and especially those with neurological deficits take so long to respond, that most people feel compelled to supply the active quality to their interactions in a learning situation. That is, initiate, demonstrate, show, guide their hands, help, facilitate, prompt, or otherwise do it for them. This, however, is the crucial element. Any action by a teacher or care provider that supplies the active element for the learner, in many ways robs the learner of the vital essence of learning: to do something for themselves.


When sharing something new, the first reaction of a child is to play with the item themselves to show their friend how to play with it. As all adults will recognize, sharing and, moreover, learning requires that the learner actually try it, do it themselves. The classic anecdote to illustrate how futile demonstration it is should be very familiar to any parent or teacher of typical children over the age of, say, 3 (younger than that we would not expect true sharing). There have been many times when I had to correct our five-year-old when he would “share” computer games with his friends by playing it himself – he was “showing” them how to do it.

So often do we see parents, educators and therapists engage in the same style of behavior when working with learners with disabilities. There is much evidence that the “guided hands” approach for children with disabilities produces both a negative reaction and increased passivity.

Tolerance for Inaction

Virtually every conventional and alternative form of therapy and education is designed, or is implemented with a low threshold of tolerance for inaction. While high-functioning children can much more easily engage in an activity independently, learners with disabilities are seldom left to do their own devices for any significant amount of time. Else they are left in wholly non-learning places- literally left in a corner, or with materials or environment they cannot productively engage in. Active Learning is based on creating optimal environments for learners to actively learn on their own, their own time and space.

Tuning The Environment

It may take a lot of trust to allow a child or challenged learner to be on their own and apparently not be accomplishing anything. It also takes a very well tuned environment so that this time is productive and not simply frustrating. There is productive frustration and futile frustration. This has been the most difficult aspect as a parent to decide when frustration is a learning mode vs. a fiasco.

In order to justify any appreciable level of frustration, one must make due diligence that the environment is optimally suited to learning for the challenged learner. This is where Dr. Nielsen’s research has paid off. She has through the years seen so many children and older learners with severe disabilities and tried so many variations that she has identified some that work much better than others. In Active Learning, if the learner is not playing, the environment can be tuned better, and that is the responsibility of the adult, not the learner.