Active Learning

The Philosophy of Active Learning

By: Dr. Lilli Nielsen March 2000

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 them to learn at higher and higher levels.

The approach of ACTIVE LEARNING developed over the past 40 years, 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 only would also benefit from having optimal opportunity 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 their 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 they are 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 the child is playing, rather than while they are handled by an adult, or while an adult is guiding their hands. Learning to move legs and feet are important pre-requisites for learning to sit, stand and walk unsupported. This learning occurs if the child has opportunities to achieve the muscle strength necessary for displaying weight bearing. Learning to combine information gained from acting sense modalities is the pre-requisite for learning object concept and for establishing a memory that enables the child to recognise, associate and generalise. This occurs if the child has opportunities to repeat and to compare their experiences at the time that they choose. 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 have been designed. The perceptualyzing aid called the Little Room facilitates the child’s learning of spatial relations and object concept, gives them the opportunity to explore and experiment with the objects with 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 anybody.The perceptualyzing aide called the Essef facilitates the child’s learning to sit unsupported and to develop the gross motor movements necessary for learning to stand and walk. The perceptualyzing aid called the HOPSAdress facilitates the child’s opportunity to achieve sufficient muscle strength for bearing their 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. Every child is unique and the complexity of handicaps in any child with disabilities makes him even more unique. To help with and understand the child’s developmental needs, the “Functional Scheme” assessment book is also a handy tool to record a child’s progress.

The intervention for facilitating the child’s learning must, for this reason, be done individually. Also the role of the adult while interacting with the child is considered. In some situations the adult should only act as the provider of materials and be ready to share with the child when they want to share their experiences. In other situations the adult should contribute by taking there turn when the child wants them 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 becoming autistic. Interactions, during which the adult performs most of the activities, or refrains from waiting for the child to initiate their part of the interaction, fail to give the child opportunity to learn or 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 them 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 their own active exploration and examination, the child will achieve skills that becomes a part of their personality, and so are natural for them to use in interactions with others, and of fulfillment of their own needs, and will gradually let them react relevantly to instructions and education, in other words to be as independent as possible.

At CAP we embrace Lilli’s philosophies and all our Furniture and Equipment is designed and made to reflect this. Thats why our vision and mission is to help your Child Achieve their Potential.


Lilli Nielsen, 1977: The Comprehending Hand
Lilli Nielsen, 1990: Are you Blind? Lilli Nielsen, 1992, Space and Self Lilli Nielsen, 1993: Early Learning – Step by Step.
Lilli Nielsen, 1998: The FIELA Curriculum – 730 Learning Environments
Lilli Nielsen, 2000: Functional Scheme – Levels: 0 – 48 months J. van der Poel, 1997: Visual impairment – Understanding the needs of young children.

The Dynamic Learning Circle

Stage One

A child becomes aware and interested in:

  • His/her own motor and sensory activities
  • The objects and activities in the environment
  • People in the environment – their social/communication activities

Stage Two

A child becomes curious and interested – which leads to:

  1. Repetition of his/her own activity
  2. Establishing memories of his/her own activity
  3. Experimentation, exploration and comparison with objects
  4. Imitation of the activity of others
  5. Responding to verbal/non verbal communication of others
  6. Initiating activity
  7. Sharing his/her experiences with others

Stage Three

A child completes learning with an activity.

  • An activity is repeated to such a level that it becomes part of the child’s every day actions and patterns
  • An activity or action becomes familiar enough that it presents no more challenges to the child

Stage Four

A child becomes ready for new challenges which lead to awareness and interest if:

  • The child is given opportunities to experience new motor/sensory activities
  • The child is given opportunities to experience new actions of others
  • The challenges offered are within a child’s developmental level
  • Other people have taken an interest in the child’s past activities becomes curious and interested –which leads to: Repetition of his/her own activity. Establishing memories of his/her own activity Experimentation, exploration and comparison with objects Imitation of the activity of others Responding to verbal/non-verbal communication of others Initiating activity Sharing his/her experiences with others

The Little Room

By: Dr. Lilli Nielsen 

The “Little Room” is designed to give blind infants, children with slow development, severely disabled children and children with combinations of disabilities the possibility to gain the ability of reaching, the beginning of the understanding of space, and early object concept.

Non-handicapped children are reaching for objects when they are 3-4 months old while blind children often are 10-12 months old before they achieve this ability. Some blind children will instead of reaching behaviour, develop a stereotyped motor behaviour, which is turned toward their own body. It is therefore important to offer the blind infant surroundings, which can motivate him to reach for objects as early in life as possible.

The “Little Room” can be built in the size that best fits each child. The material in the Little Room must be provided with objects that hang from the ceiling and/or upon the walls, so whatever movements the child makes, he will come in tactile contact with the objects. It is a good idea to observe which qualities the child prefers – which structure the child prefers to search – which sounds the child prefers while reaching – which smells the child prefers just now.

When the child reaches for the ceiling and the walls (one can build the Little Room bigger,) so the child thereby can be motivated to move himself around in the Little Room and perhaps out of it and into it. In some ways the handicapped child gains the experiences and understanding of space that non-handicapped children achieve by looking around, and by building a lot of different playhouses. Blind children and severely disabled children are not able to build playhouses by themselves, or to find small spaces under furniture and cupboards as needed early in life.

The modules of the “Little Room” must now and then be moved from one place to another and be provided with new objects so the child’s curiosity and thereby his motivation for experimenting can be preserved. It is important that the “Little Room” is equipped with many objects so the child can compare different tactile and auditory stimuli. It is also important that the objects can be reached by the child, and are graspable.


Lilli Nielsen, 1992, Space and Self.
Lilli Nielsen, 1993, Early Learning – Step by Step.
Lilli Nielsen, 1998, The FIELA Curriculum – 730 Learning Environments 

The Resonance Board

By: Dr. Lilli Nielsen 

The Resonance Board is made of either 3 mm plywood size 120 x 60 cm if the child is very small, or 4mm for the larger 120 x 120cm and the 150 x 120 cm. Along the edge of the underside you apply a wooden strip, which is 2 x 2 cm. It is very important to apply the strip along the edge and that the strip is not wider than 2 cm. If the board is correctly made, it has the following qualities. The sounds that the child produces on the sounding board will be transmitted through the fibres of the wood and will be felt by the child on other parts of his/her body. The sounds will get a prolonged and a reinforced effect, which is important to the child’s motivation for increased activity.

The weight of the child will result in a little bending of the board downwards, which will make beads roll back that were made to roll to the edge of the board by the body movements of the child. This is a prolonged reaction to the child’s activities. The air gap also has an insulated effect to the cold floor. Children and adults will not get as tired throughout their bodies while sitting on it, due to its adaptability.

The child will get an opportunity to develop an understanding of space by learning a little about the limited “room” which the resonance board represents. He/she will start moving about on the board. This will constitute a good basis for the motivation of the child to use the space outside of the sounding board, and by means of this, he/she will start moving from one place to another.

When using the resonance board for the first time, the adult should sit down on the board with the child in his/her lap. Make contact with the board by making small sounds on the board. Inform the child, and make a little stronger sound. Slowly move the child’s body down onto the board. Not until then, when you have made sure that the child is secure and made to feel at home in the situation should you start putting objects under the hands of the child, around the child, under the feet of the child, under the head of the child. By observing the reactions of the child you will decide how far to get the first time, when the child is able to lie alone on the board and for how long.


Lilli Nielsen, 1977,  The Comprehending Hand
Lilli Nielsen, 1992,  Space and Self.
Lilli Nielsen, 1993,  Early Learning – Step by Step
Lilli Nielsen, 1998,  The FIELA Curriculum – 730 Learning Environment

The HOPSA-dress

By: Dr. Lilli Nielsen 

The HOPSA-dress  is designed to give wheelchair users the opportunity to move their legs, learning to bear their own weight, balance while standing, and achieve the ability to walk.

Technical Information

The HOPSA-dress is manufactured in three sizes to fit persons 1-7 years of age, 7-14, and adults. It is attached to a crossbar with chain, or a crossbar and block suspension handing from a track that is securely attached to the ceiling. A track placed parallel to, and at a distance of 50-60 cm from the wall will create the opportunity for placing materials within reach of the learner in the H-d and so promote learning. The shoulder straps should be fastened as close as possible to the learner’s shoulders, while the body belt must be tightened sufficiently to fit snuggly.

Introduction of the HOPSA-dress

Some learners need to be introduced to the HOPSA-dress gradually. They can tolerate the impact of the new experience of being upright, and the ability to move, for short periods only. For these learners it would be better to remain in the HOPSA-dress for a few minutes only, with 2-3 repetitions per total learning session. After a few short periods in the HOPSA-dress the majority of learners will show that a longer period of time in the HOPSA-dress can be endured.

Practical Information

In the beginning the HOPSA-dress is elevated to a point allowing the learner to just touch the floor or the material placed underfoot. Several beginners would have been using a wheelchair for years.

This causes the tendons of the knees to become so short that it is natural to have bent knees while in the HOPSA-dress during the first weeks or months of daily exercise. As the learner becomes use to moving his legs and feet the tendons will extend. This will determine how high above the floor the learner should be place. If placed too low, the learner will be forced to support his weight by pressing the feet towards the floor. This will restrict movement and the further development of muscle strength.

The environment should be arranged according to the learner’s developmental level and interest in order to be meaningful. Arrange the environment in such a way that both feet and hands can be active. The majority of learners need to start with touching the available materials using their toes only. Big trays each containing a specific substance, such as, marbles, beans, chains with beads, corrugated cardboard, gravel and ribbed rubber mats, provide opportunities for varied experiences and comparison.

Solving Specific Problems

In the beginning some learners find it difficult to move their legs. They are also unfamiliar with the vertical position. As a result the skin of their legs/feet becomes red and blue. Often they also have very cold feet. In such cases it would help to place his feet in a vibrating foot spa with warm water while in the HOPSA-dress. The vibration will stimulate blood circulation in the leg muscles and encourage movement. If the learner’s feet are very cold, massaging with peppermint oil just before exercising the legs and feet will be helpful. Increasing movement leads to increasing contractions in the veins, the blood is pumped upwards and the skin colour returns to normal

Some learners initially experience a tightness or soreness in the crotch as they are unfamiliar with their body pressing against the under-part of the HOPSA-dress. This can be relieved by a piece of fur, foam rubber or other soft material. The problem usually disappears after a short period of time.

Altering the Height of the HOPSA-dress

Having used the HOPSA-dress for a while the learner will start to put weight on one leg at a time. This in now the time to lower the HOPSA-dress one or two centimetres enabling him to push a flat foot against the floor and to exercise flexing the ankles. The HOPSA-dress must still be high enough to prevent full weight bearing. Having developed sufficient muscle strength to bear his own weight, the learner will still need daily exercise in the HOPSA-dress to allow free coordination of arm and leg movements while practicing the ability to balance and walk.


Regular exercise in the HOPSA-dress improves

  • Coordination of arms and legs,
  • Blood circulation,
  • Breathing,
  • Intestinal functioning,
  • The bronchial condition,
  • Muscle strength,
  • Bone structure. The learner also achieves an enhanced feeling of independence because he gradually experiences that he can perform more and more functions without the help of another person (a parent, teacher, therapist, or others.) Ample opportunities to explore his environment, to experiment with objects within reach of hands and feet, and to decide when and how far he wants to move, according to the length of the overhead track, are provided. Learners with many spastic reactions in arms and or legs are provided with opportunities to learn to counteract the spastic reactions, and so achieve better control over their movements. The use of the HOPSA-dress is demonstrated on a video produced by VIDECOM, St. Gallen, Schwitzerland with the title of “Perceptualyzing Aids – Why, How, and When?”


The HOPSA-dress has been in use since 1989, and is now being used worldwide. Several of the users who were 8-10 years old when they commenced to use the H-d were able to walk independently at the age of 12-14. The learners who, because of specific motor handicap(s) have not yet learned to walk without the support of the H-d, still benefited as stated in the paragraph dealing with benefits. The justification for exposing the user of a wheelchair to the H-d is to be founded in the physical and emotional improvements observed in the particular learners.


Lilli Nielsen, 1993,  Early Learning – Step by Step
Lilli Nielsen, 1998,  The FIELA Curriculum – 730 Learning Environments
Lilli Nielsen, 2000,  Functional Scheme – Levels: 0 – 48 months 
J. van der Poel, 1997,  Visual impairment – Understanding the needs of young children

The Essef Board

By: Dr. Lilli Nielsen 

Many handicapped children perform all too few leg and feet movements, and many children have difficulty in learning to keep their balance. The “Essef Board” may diminish these problems.

While sitting on the lap of an adult or sitting on a chair, or in a wheelchair the child can kick against the “Essef Board” standing on the floor. By means of the holes in the board the “Essef Board” can be hung on the wall serving as a background for kicking games for a child in the supine position or for pushing games for a sitting child using back or hands.

The “Essef Board” can of course also be used for jumping either with support from an adult or while the child holds onto, for example, a wall bar.

On top of the “Essef Board” can be placed several toys that will “dance” when the child activates the spring, by beating or pushing on the board.

The upper board can be provided with netting or, ruffled plastic. This produces an effect of an interesting haptic stimulus at the feet. Also the ruffled plastic and be used to make noise with the fingers or other objects.


Lilli Nielsen, 1993, Early Learning – Step by Step
Lilli Nielsen, 1998, The FIELA Curriculum – 730 Learning Environments 

Multi-Functional Activity Table

By: Dr. Lilli Nielsen

The MFAT is designed to allow the learner (child or adult) to initiate a large variety of cognitive activities while sitting on the floor, or in a chair, or wheelchair.

Technical Information

The MFAT is designed in such a way that the tabletop can be set at various heights to accommodate two extremes: a learner seated on the floor and an adult seated in wheelchair.

The table top of the MFAT has three interchangeable parts, and is delivered with six different surfaces: three fitted with plastic containers, one covered with Velcro on one side and a plastic tray on the other, one covered with a metal board on the one side and ordinary plywood covering on the other. In one part are several small holes to which objects can be tied.

A part fitted with three plastic containers hinges at the back edge of the table. This can be placed horizontally to extend the tabletop, or vertically as a shelf with three compartments.

The containers can be used as a depot for supplying materials or into which objects can be pushed, placed and regained.

When the three containers are in vertical position they can be used as shelves for storing materials or for “putting things where they belong.”


The MFAT allows the learner to use the entire surface as a perceptual field. It also provides for a great variety of arrangements as learning environments. According to what the mediator has placed on the tabletop and in the containers, the learner can choose those objects and the materials he wants to play with. Mobile learners, who can collect the materials necessary for a certain activity from elsewhere, can place these in the order that fits best for a particular activity. The different tabletops and shelf, and a multiplicity of objects provide enriched perceptual fields, promoting the development of manipulative skills and spatial perception, and the higher order skills of selection, integration, organisation, categorisation and symbolisation.

Some of the parts of the tabletop are treated to allow for activities with water, paint, yogurt, etc.

The learner who has reached the developmental level at which he commences to place some objects at a certain spot, needs to practice this skill further by placing objects in specific positions in relation to his own body: next to him, in front of him, behind him, close to him, in different containers, and later to place objects in relation to each other: on a row, close together, further apart, on top of each other, underneath something, in a colourful pattern, etc. The MFAT is a very useful instrument to enhance all these, and more learning activities.

When the learner leaves spontaneously or is taken away from the MFAT, either because it is time for a meal or for going home, or for other reasons, the adult (teacher, assistant, or parent) should refrain from changing the composition or creation the learner has developed. This will allow the learner to return to something he or she has done, and so recognise it and the relationship between the objects, and learn that objects continue to exist even if he moves away from them, turns his back to them, or is eating or sleeping, and that they are to be found where he placed them (object permanence). This will give the learner the opportunity to change his product, just like an artist or an author won’t start from the beginning every day, but rather return to his unfinished painting or manuscript. The artist will observe his painting, correct a little here and there; add a colour or a figure. The author will re-read what she has written, correct and add until she is satisfied with her work. Only then he or she will be ready to put it all away, ready to start on a new challenge. The learner using the MFAT needs to continue his work, and so discover his product as worthy, and finally consider it to be completed, ready to be put aside for creating something new and exciting.

But should not the learner learn to tidy up? Yes, that is just what he will become motivated for when it becomes meaningful for him to find a certain object for a new construction.


  • Regular activities while using the MFAT
  • Improves the learner’s creative capabilities,
  • Enlarges his or her object concept,
  • Enhances his knowledge about which objects can be separated, piled, and put together,
  • Gives opportunity to become familiar with many different kinds of material,
  • Facilitates the learning of playing constructively,
  • Enhances the ability to solve problems. When the MFAT is equipped according to the learner’s developmental level it will promote the learner’s motivation for comparing objects and the results of his activities, memory and, the ability to solve problems. Achievement of consciousness (level of attention, concentration) about things, events, and persons occurs if the brain continually has something to process. All along the surroundings must allow for new detail to be perceived so that the activities always are arousing (interesting and exciting) and expanding the learner’s consciousness. If the surroundings become too monotonous and without the necessary challenges, the learner’s activity will be automatic, the level of consciousness decline and learning is minimal. The MFAT enhances the replacement of cocoon-like behaviour with exploratory activity, and therefore raises the learning curve substantially