Concept Development in Infants and Toddlers with Visual Impairment

The formation of concepts in infants and toddlers usually occurs naturally through play and an interest in their environment, says Linda Gerra, EdD, Director of Children’s Vision Programs at Lighthouse Guild, who has long experience of working with children with blindness or visual impairment. Vision plays a dominant role in how young children organize and make sense of the environment. Eighty percent of learning is through vision and therefore vision (or the lack of it), has a major impact on concept development in young children.

As a result, children who are blind and visually impaired experience many challenges during their formative years.

What is Concept Development?

Concept development is an understanding of the characteristics, qualities, and functionality of people, places and objects. Concepts are constructed from information forming a base, then building and adding more information. As information is gathered, the concepts become more solid. These structures are formed from social interactions, language development, and experiences. Information is gathered through all senses.

Concepts are formulated through the cross-referencing of information and perceptions from the senses through a process of associations made from collecting this sensory data, which results in a perception of the world, and are always evolving and changing as well.

Mental images of individuals born blind are less accurate than those of persons with sight. The incidental learning acquired through use of vision is missing. Visual information is constantly available for children with sight, providing them with immediate data on all kinds of concepts (size, color, shape, position, quality, etc.). This is not the case for children who are blind.

Children with blindness interact with their environment by integrating touch or sound to develop a view of the world. They receive the most information through objects that are near to them, that can be obtained easily or through objects that are presented to them, limiting their experience and impacting on concept development. As children develop language skills, information, can, of course, be provided through explanation, description, and comparisons. But it generally is far less complete than a visual image.

Concepts through Engagement

Beginning concepts are systematically taught through structured experiences. Children must be guided to engage and explore consistently available objects and activities. If a child only has the experience of sitting in a chair in his classroom, the kitchen in his home, or his family’s living room, he will form an incorrect concept of “chairness”. In reality, there are hundreds of styles of chairs; they look and feel different, but they are all chairs.

Dr. Gerra emphasizes that when working with children with blindness, a person should use real objects, not replicas or models. She suggests Building concepts into children’s daily routines, such as a cooking activity, where they can learn about individual ingredients, measuring and creating something. Exploring concepts through role play, such as pretending to take a bus or a train, further enhances concept development. Finally, Expanding concepts by providing choices. Which do you want, the big truck or the little truck? All help to complete concept formation.

These activities used frequently will go a long way toward helping children with vision loss in this important area of their development.