Braille bricks to transform learning for children with visual impairment
"Play is for all, sighted and not sighted. It is a child’s right to play. We cannot decide to withhold play time from the visually impaired"
The clicking sound of building blocks fills the room, mingling with animated voices shouting out different letters of the alphabet. The excitement that fills the room is palpable as one by one, the people in the room are able to assemble the building blocks into the entire alphabet. These are no ordinary, everyday building blocks. These are LEGO braille bricks. The sounds of excitement are made by teachers learning to use the LEGO braille bricks. A little while later, they are even more animated as they begin to learn to create words with the braille bricks. As part of the training, the teachers with sight were blindfolded and tasked to carry out certain exercises.
“Challenging.” “Frustrating.” “Collaborative.” “Engaging.” These were some of the words expressed by the teachers to describe their first experience working with LEGO braille bricks. But, perhaps, the word that stands out most is “fun”. Even though parts of the exercise were frustrating, the teachers did enjoy the overall learning process.
The exercise was part of a 3-day training in Iganga District in eastern Uganda, organized by the Ministry of Education and Sports, with support from UNICEF. The training is the start of a pilot project to introduce the use of LEGO braille bricks in play-based learning. The pilot project started with 9 inclusive schools – schools that teach sighted children alongside those with visual impairment.
Sanya Jackson, the Education Officer in Charge of Special Needs at the Ministry of Education, said the pilot project is intended to fill a needs gap in teaching and learning, especially in lower primary and Early Childhood Development Centres.
“With the LEGO braille bricks, we are introducing a new way of learning through play to arouse the learners’ interests,” Sanya said.
The idea behind play-based learning stems from evidence that learning through play helps children master important skills and competencies that they need in the fast, ever-changing world. More importantly, it will enhance the skills and competencies of children with visual impairment.
“It is important to involve the children with visual impairment in play because they are just as competent and curious as their sighted peers,” says Joseph Odeke, a teacher trainer from Kyambogo University in Kampala.
“Play is for all, sighted and not sighted. It is a child’s right to play. We cannot decide to withhold play time from the visually impaired,” said Marie Assumpta, a Centre Coordinating Tutor for the LEGO braille bricks pilot project. Her role is to train the teachers who will then apply the knowledge and skills acquired in addition to cascading the learning through the braille bricks to the children in schools and to help oversee the implementation in the selected schools.
Assumpta added that learning through play with the LEGO braille bricks is an enjoyable and purposeful activity, in addition to enhancing the child’s cognitive, creative, emotional, physical, and social skills.
“The LEGO braille bricks project is based on the idea that learning through play is vital for every child. Even in the absence of a teacher, a sighted child should be able to help a child with visual impairment through the learning process,” said John Wambazu, a teacher trainer with Kyambogo University.
UNICEF is working in partnership with Kyambogo University to conduct the baseline and end line assessments of the pilot project.
The LEGO Braille bricks offer a groundbreaking platform in Uganda for teaching braille in a playful and child-friendly way. It is hoped that, over time, with the pilot project as a start, the negative attitudes associated with learning for children with visual impairment will change, allowing the learners to feel included and thrive.
“Ultimately, we want to see increased numbers in enrollment of children with visual impairment in inclusive schools,” Sanya says. “Children are very good ambassadors. When they experience these braille bricks at school, they will go home and tell other people.”
Sanya added that there will supervision and monitoring in this phase of the project to create community awareness.
“Our hope is that the teachers who are trained will be able to teach the children in lower primary with visual impairment basic literacy and numeracy skills,” said Esther Akwii, an Education Officer and focal person on inclusive education with UNICEF.
The braille bricks are specifically designed to help children with visual impairments learn basic literacy and numeracy in braille.
“The bigger issue is what will happen on the ground when the teachers go back to the schools with this knowledge,” Akwii added. “We will monitor the use of the braille bricks in the schools through the centre coordinators and will assess the impact after three months.”
Akwii added that what is even more unique is that sighted children will also learn to use the braille bricks, in turn, helping their peers with visual impairment.
The innovative use of the LEGO braille bricks is also a step toward skilling teachers. Uganda has a shortage of teachers trained with skills to facilitate and support effective learning for all children with disabilities.
“I am excited about this. I had to learn to use braille but now with these braille bricks, I can see my children learning even faster,” said Mary Frida Ajuno, a teacher at an inclusive school in Kyaninga in western Uganda.
“This training has been very useful in enabling me to learn new skills to teach learners with visual impairment,” said George Yiga, a teacher of lower primary in Busia District in eastern Uganda. He is a teacher with visual impairment.
“As opposed to just teaching them to use handprint, this time round, they will learn to read words not written on paper by way of playing. I am privileged to be part of this innovation,” Yiga added.
“I am happy about this training. Now, the children with visual impairment will learn much better,” said Mercy Achieng, another teacher with visual impairment.
As excited as the teachers were, Sanya cautions: “We need a lot of patience and time to master the use of the braille bricks. This factor must be put into consideration.”
The pilot project is phase one with the eight inclusive schools and one pre-primary school. The target is to roll it to 25 schools by 2024.
As Akwii said, the true test will be when the teachers are back in school to implement what they learnt at the 3-day training.
Sylvia Nambozo, a teacher at Nauyo Primary School said: “We are excited about this training. We have embraced it!”