‘They learn Braille almost without noticing that they are learning’

How Lego toys are going to educate blind and sighted children through play

An undated handout image provided by Lego shows Lego bricks featuring the shapes of Braille dots and the corresponding letter, number or punctuation symbol. Photograph: Lego via The New York Times

An undated handout image provided by Lego shows Lego bricks featuring the shapes of Braille dots and the corresponding letter, number or punctuation symbol. Photograph: Lego via The New York Times

 

A new effort is underway to help blind and visually impaired children more naturally learn to read Braille, a system based on different configurations of six small, raised dots that blind people read with their fingertips.

And it is coming in the form of a favourite childhood toy: Lego bricks.

The Lego Foundation– which is funded by the Lego Group, the Danish toy company that makes the blocks – has announced a new project that will repurpose the usual knobs atop the bricks as Braille dots. And because the blocks will also be stamped with the corresponding written letter, number or punctuation symbol, they can be played with by blind and sighted children alike. The project, called Lego Braille Bricks, is in a pilot phase and is expected to be released in partnership with schools and associations for the blind in 2020.

Braille literacy crisis

“When they get Lego in their hands, it’s intuitive for them,” said Diana Ringe Krogh, who is overseeing the project for the Lego Foundation. “They learn Braille almost without noticing that they are learning. It is really a learning-through-play approach.”

Advocates say the product could transform reading for blind and visually impaired children, making the experience of learning Braille more inclusive and helping to combat what has been called a “Braille literacy crisis.”

Approximately 55,000 people live with blindness or a serious vision impairment in Ireland. And, away from the public gaze, Braille is used daily, though figures are hard to come by. For example, in March, on World Book Day 2019, the National Council for the Blind Ireland (NCBI) announced three new Braille titles – Bumpfizzle the Best on Planet Earth by Patrica Forde, Sam Hannigan’s Rock Star Granny by Alan Nolan, and Four Sisters, One Life by Annie Donnelly.

The Braille bricks have been tested in schools and community centers in Brazil, Denmark, Norway, and Britain

Today, children often learn to write on a heavy machine that looks like a typewriter, but it feels clunky and can differentiate them from their friends in day care and school, according to Thorkild Olesen, president of the Danish Association of the Blind. His organisation first pitched the idea of Braille building blocks to Lego in 2011, followed by the Dorina Nowill Foundation for the Blind in Brazil, which separately proposed the idea in 2017. “Many blind children give up learning Braille or will not be introduced to Braille in the first place,” Olesen said.

There have been other attempts to make learning Braille more appealing, including alphabet blocks and UNO playing cards. But the Lego bricks, which have built-in mainstream appeal and offer the chance to play around with words, or even play a makeshift game of Scrabble, seem to have a unique appeal. “I don’t know of any other efforts that combine learning and play as thoroughly as Lego Braille bricks,” Olesen said.

The Braille bricks have been tested in schools and community centers in Brazil, Denmark, Norway, and Britain. And, in the Autumn, the pilot program will expand to Germany, France, Mexico and the United States, according to the Lego Foundation.

After taking in feedback, Lego will roll out the Braille bricks next year, the foundation said. The Lego sets will be free for children through associations for the blind and schools. – New York Times

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