Paths to Literacy

for students who are blind or visually impaired

Remembering Lilli Nielsen and her Legacy of Active Learning

Lilli Nielsen

When Dr. Lilli Nielsen died last month, the fields of blindness, deafblindness, and the education of children with multiple disabilities lost a great friend and teacher.  Dr. Nielsen was born in Denmark in 1926, and worked as a preschool teacher, a psychologist, and a teacher of the blind.  She wrote numerous books on the development of children who are blind, and was perhaps best known for her work on Active Learning.  She grew up with four sibling who were blind and she maintained that this influenced her approach to people who are blind, especially in being respectful of hands and not grabbing them or making them touch things.


What is "Active Learning"?

Active learning is based on the belief that ALL children can learn.  The guiding principle behind this theory is that our job as parents and educators is to create environments or situations that encourage active exploration, without interference from an adult.  This means that we are not guiding the child's hands or telling the child what to do.  Instead we  encourage the child to be an active participant in his or her own learning by creating spaces and presenting materials that are interesting and safe to explore.  In order to be most effective, the environment should be responsive, in other words something should happen when a child moves or bangs something.


What is a "Little Room"?

The Little Room is a space in which a child can explore his or her environment safely.   Toys and objects are suspended little roomfrom the ceiling with elastic cords, as in the photo on the right, and the child is free to explore and experiment with what she discovers while moving hands and legs.  Items should be sturdy and it is preferable to avoid plastic.  Items made of wood, fabric, and metal are much more interesting than plastic and provide more sensory feedback.  Many people prefer to use real objects, such as a cup, toothbrush, spoon, small bells, etc.  For children with some vision, items can be brightly colored.  Cardboard boxes should not be used to create little rooms, as it is crucial to be able to observe the child in the Little Room, as well as to provide adequate ventilation.

What is a "Resonance Board"?

Resonance boardA resonance board is a thin piece of wood that typically goes under the child when he or she is in the little room.  It provides sensory feedback by vibrating and echoing while the child is playing, thereby encouraging movement and vocalization.  Watch this video from TSBVI to see a resonance board in use.


Where can I get more information?

For further reading about Dr. Lilli Nielsen and her pioneering work, see:


This is a joint website between Penrickton Center for Blind Children, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Perkins School for the Blind.  The site provides an introduction to Active Learning.

Active Learning
TSBVI Outreach
This page from the Outreach Department at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired has links to a wide range of information, including  Training Events, Articles and Fact Sheets, Books, Forms, Websites, Videos, Webcasts & Webinars, and Other Materials.

Lilli Nielsen and Active Learning
National Consortium on Deafblindness
This webpage from NCDB has links to introductory resources, video/audio and more.

LilliWorks’ mission is to advance Active Learning through supply of equipment, education, outreach and research.



Active Learning and the Blind, Multiply Disabled Child
By Lilli Nielsen, Future Reflections, Special Issue 2004

The Active Learning Approach:  Using the Resonance Board and the Little Room with Young Blind and Multiply Disabled Children
By Gigi Newton, Future Reflections, Conference Report 2012

An Introduction to Dr. Lilli Nielsen's Active Learning
By Stacy Shafer, TSBVI Outreach

What my Daughter Taught me About Active Learning--or, Whose Goal is it Anyway?
By Jean Bugbee, Future Reflections, Winter/Spring 2006


Active Learning Ideas from Lilli Nielsen


In remembrance and gratitude

Posted by Emily Taylor-Snell

Good Bye, Lilli

Posted by Kevan Clinard

Posted on July 22, 2013
Updated on: January 25, 2022

Previous comments for Remembering Lilli Nielsen and her Legacy of Active Learning

Kevan Clinard commented on October 2, 2013

I just found out that you have gone. You have taken a part of me with you. I can only hope I have returned the favor. Love forever and always. Kevan

Emily Taylor-Snell commented on August 27, 2013

Lili Nielsen has touched my heart with her gentleness and has deeply influenced my work with children who are deaf-blind and their families and teachers. She will live on in each child we touch and each time we share her insights and work.
Thanks you!

Charlotte@Perkins commented on July 23, 2013

Since the posting of this blog, a number of you have written to ask for more information about Dr. Nielsen's passing.  We do not have a link to her obituary, but we share with you here an email message from her sons:

Dear friends and colleagues of Dr. Nielsen

It is with sadness we have to inform you that Dr. Lilli Nielsen passed away on the 24. june 2013 at the public hospital of Kolding after a short but hectic period of illness. She was hit by pneumonia and her general condition was worsening over the last week. She was clear in her mind to the very last, but exhausted and only awake for a few minutes at a time.

The funeral will take place from Nr. Bjert kirke, Sletteskovvej 2, Nr. Bjert, 6000 Kolding, on Saturday the 29 june at 13.00 hrs.

Yours faithfully

Christan Reker and Erik Reker
Sons of Lilli Nielsen