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by Millie Smith

A den is one of the active learning techniques used by Dr. Lilli Nielsen to overcome tactual passivity in students with visual impairments. Dr. Nielsen noticed in her work with these students for over twenty years that they frequently avoided contact with objects in their environments. She also noticed that adults manipulated these students hands a great deal. Dr. Nielsen wanted to create an environment where students would have total control over their interactions with objects and the use of their hands. She knew this environment would have to feel very safe and be very interesting. She chose to expand on the natural tendency of children to make dens for themselves in kitchen cabinets and under beds and in self-made tents and club houses.

Here are some denning factors to think about.

Define a space. Use a pup tent, an appliance box, or the space under a table. (Note: A den is not a "Little Room". Spaces such as the ones listed above would not be appropriate for a "little room".) If you want to intensify the acoustic qualities of the space, use something with hard sides. Make sure air flow is adequate and that your student can go in and out of the den at will.

Fill the space with interesting stuff. Some students will like to choose their own things to take into the den. More severely impaired students will need you to set up their dens for them. If you want your student to work on spatial memory (remembering where things are in order to get them again) hang things from elastic bands. You can attach peg board to den walls if that helps. If you arent so concerned with the students ability to remember where things are, you might put baskets of objects in the den. You can work on some categorizing skills by having baskets of types of objects like things that come from the kitchen in one basket and things that come from the bathroom in another.

Choose objects that enhance cognitive and tactual development. Put in rough things and smooth things; heavy things and light things; things that make interesting noises; things that feel cold, wet, or warm; things that have moving parts; things that are almost the same as another thing but just a little bit different; things that fit together; things that pull apart; things that turn off and on; things that vibrate; things that light up; objects that are visually interesting: objects that are made of wood, leather, metal, fabric, etc. It is o.k. to put in some plastic toys, but remember that stuff from the kitchen and the garage is just as good and sometimes better.

Any action the student chooses to engage in with the object is o.k. The theory is that more sophisticated forms of exploration will develop naturally once the passivity barrier is broken. For example, a student that only initiates oral exploration will do that for a while before moving on to manual exploration. A student who only throws objects will learn that the object stays within the confined space and can be retrieved.

Students should be left alone as much as safety allows. Talk tends to distract them from their attention to exploration and manipulation of objects.

A den is only one way to encourage students to explore objects. It is basically a play or rec/leisure activity. All the same safety issues that apply to other activities apply with dens. Observe the student. Don't put objects in the den that are small enough to be swallowed or that have parts that could be pulled off and swallowed. Clean objects frequently.