Incidental learning opportunities for CVI

Children with CVI don’t have the same opportunities for incidental learning as others do. Here's why it matters, and how parents can help bridge the gap.

Maurice playing outside.

Think about a toddler standing in line at the store. He reaches for candy at the cash register, runs after a plastic ball in the toy aisle or grabs for a colorful magazine at checkout. He sees mom or dad unload their cart, item by item, and pay. All that time, he’s absorbing information about the world around him — completely incidentally. He’s making connections: a ball bounces, money is used to pay, a magazine has pages you can flip. Children with Cortical Visual Impairment/Cerebral Visual Impairment (CVI) don’t have those opportunities for incidental learning.

Happily, improved vision naturally increases opportunities for incidental learning. However, a child with CVI will also need more opportunities for intentional learning — scenarios that are deliberate, consistent and predictable, as opposed to simply unfolding during the course of a day. Your child will benefit from both, and you and your child’s team can provide them.

  • A sighted child learns as much as 90% of everything she learns through her visual pathways.
  • As much as 85% of what a child will learn in her lifetime is learned within the first five years.

What is incidental learning?

Incidental learning is the information you receive with your eyes without even knowing it — like that example at the store. Kids under three whose visual pathways don’t work correctly face challenges in their ability to learn, just at the time when their brains are developing the most. Challenges posed by lack of access to incidental learning continue to pose barriers across a person’s lifetime without support and consideration for accessibility.

A child with CVI isn’t taking in information about the space around him. He needs someone to explain to him what he feels, hears, smells and sees. Those explanations are best paired with hands-on experience to gain meaning from the experience. This is why it’s so important for a child with CVI to work with an early intervention team, who can create the experiences so many of us take for granted. It’s crucial for your child to gain access as soon as possible.

Why does incidental learning matter?

Incidental learning helps us make sense of our world. Without incidental learning, words and concepts lack meaning.

Here are some examples of how kids with CVI might experience the world, without opportunities for incidental learning:

  • They might touch something warm, and think it’s the sun
  • They might think books come from the sky (instead of a high bookshelf)
  • They might associate being in a car only with going to school, because that’s how they get there

Kids with CVI don’t have the chance to ascribe sensory meaning to their world in the same way we do, which is why creating opportunities for incidental learning is so important. Check out some other incidental learning examples on CVI Momifesto.

A child with CVI explores a scallop shell at the beach

Bridging the gap

As your child’s vision improves, his opportunities for incidental learning improve, too. That’s why early intervention is so crucial.

Vision and hearing are “distance” senses while our tactile sense is a “near” sense. Children with CVI can have difficulty learning incidentally due to the various implications of CVI, including the impact of increased distances from objects, people and events. They have difficulty linking auditory and tactile input to visual events. With guided support, your child’s access to learning can be enhanced through active participation. 

  • Value of assessment: Understanding how your child uses their vision, hearing and tactile senses from a functional standpoint, in addition to clinical, is important. Your child may be able to see, hear and/or feel, but what does he understand? Collaborative and comprehensive evaluations by qualified professionals are invaluable. For children with CVI, these evaluations can support you in understanding:
    • Your child’s receptive and expressive communication modes
    • Your child’s communication level
    • Which objects/materials to use based on visual form accessibility
    • Importance of object/material color 
    • Impact of clutter on visual attention and recognition
    • Modifications that can impact upper and lower extremity precision
    • Where to place materials so that your child can best access them
    • The positive and negative aspects of movement
    • What supports their need to understand new visual information
    • Fine and gross motor abilities 
    • Tactile discrimination skills
    • Auditory skills
  • Active learning: Based on the work of Lilli Nielson, Active Learning is an approach that provides an assessment, curriculum, specifically designed equipment and instructional strategies that support learners to be active participants in their surroundings. Remember, CVI has the potential to improve, and visual accessibility is important when creating activities for your child. Talk to your TVI about how to modify materials based on your child’s CVI assessments
  • Link sounds and tactile input to visual events: Without vision, you wouldn’t know that the loud whirring sound coming from the living room was a vacuum cleaner. Similarly, you wouldn’t know that a spinning fan provided that gentle breeze on your face. Engage your child in using these items to connect the sensory experiences. Use language to label events and help build connections.
  • Consider routines: Engaging your child in routines and activities is a great way to start! Meaningful, hands-on experiences support concept development and language acquisition. Routines naturally allow for repeat experiences that are consistent; predictable routines help build memory skills. Making a lot of change all at once can be overwhelming for both you and your child; it’s okay to start small. Begin by identifying one way in which you can actively engage your child in their routine and build off of it.
  • Power of play: Use fun and motivating materials and activities to engage your child. Understanding visual, tactile and auditory accessibility can help you in supporting accessibility, but it’s also important to build off of your child’s interests.

In this way, parents and educational teams can recreate those incidental learning experiences that happen for most of us naturally. With more explicit learning opportunities, kids with CVI can: 

  • Develop rich concepts
  • Link language to objects, people, and experiences
  • Increase independence
  • Have more confidence
  • Enjoy an increased sense of security in their world

Learn more about the neurological facets of incidental learning on the CVI Teacher Blog.