Image Source: https://www.abc.net.au/
As Harlen Petersen makes his way down a corridor, his white cane stretched out in front of him, he lets out a yell of joy knowing he is about to test-drive some new Lego.
“Let’s play braille Lego,” he cries, and points his cane in the air.
The five-year-old boy is among an excited group of vision-impaired Australian children chosen to trial Lego Braille Bricks for the first time.
The Lego kits each contain 304 bricks featuring letters, numbers, punctuation and symbols in braille, together with the printed version.
Trish Rolland from Vision Australia said a learning tool that provided opportunities for students who were blind to learn literacy and numeracy alongside their sighted peers was long overdue.
“In the past, there really wasn’t this sort of material available to children who are blind or have low vision,” she said.
Vision Australia has been gifted 1,000 kits of the braille bricks by the Lego Foundation.
They will be distributed free of charge to schools that have students with vision impairment across the country.
“To have something that is just so well known, accepted and enjoyed by so many children, to have it become much more accessible and meaningful, is wonderful,” Ms Rolland said.
Harlen ran his fingers over the braille bricks and held them up close to his eyes as he created a footpath and roads with the blocks.
“I love it,” he said.
Bricks turn ‘braille into a fun thing’
Ollie Fanshawe began learning braille when he was four years old, but the Year 9 student said he had not enjoyed it until now.
“Playing with the Lego bricks sort of just turned braille into a fun thing,” he said.
“It gets you to be creative and make images and words, so it’s pretty cool that you could be doing braille while having a lot of fun.”
His mother, Melissa Fanshawe, is an academic at the University of Southern Queensland and has worked in the area of inclusive education for 20 years.
“We all know that we develop skills through play, and it’s a really important skill that we are able to give children,” Ms Fanshawe said.
Recognising letters by touch
When sighted children learn to read, they are taught to recognise letters or words by looking at them.
Ms Fanshawe said the braille bricks worked by helping children with low vision recognise letters by touch and understanding visual topics like maths.
“That concept development in maths is really important, particularly for children with a vision impairment to be able to visualise how a number is broken up and what it means,” she said.
The Lego Braille Bricks are not available online or in shops, so schools and learning institutions need to register with Vision Australia to be eligible for a delivery of them.
For 13-year-old Ollie, the braille bricks are a game-changer when it comes to understanding visual lessons at school.
“My favourite subjects are building construction and business and economics,” he said.
“I really like them, they’re fun, and this Lego is a bit like [that] because it’s hands-on.”