preschool hands on a teacher-made braille book with illustration of a boat on water with stick figures of a dad and boy.

Tactile graphic rich environments series: The missing link

Imagery and drawing sparks creativity and is such a natural part of preschool and elementary classrooms. Writing comes from telling stories and play. Children create stories about animals, monsters, and superhero beings. There are children’s books about creatures with wings of fire and superheroes with varying powers. Being a child is all about play and imagination with good and evil characters, and battles where the good wins over the scary things.

When kids are little, they play with dolls, superheroes, plushies, Legos, plastic animals, movie toys and anything that can represent characters and supports pretend play. When children start scribbling and drawing, they tell stories through these 2-dimensional drawings. Even two blobs and a line can become mommy, daddy, and baby. The art skills progress, becoming more detailed and involved. It’s all just the continuum of storytelling with images and communicating through art.

All kids can draw and create – including kids who are blind or low vision. Young children who are blind and low vision often have very active imaginations! Are you providing your BLV student opportunities to tell great stories through his/her art? It’s all about access!

Promote drawing

Maybe, even we – the TSVIs – don’t promote drawing enough. The tools of tactile drawing are limited and specialized. Drawing with tactile materials is not readily accessible in gen ed classrooms, and then there’s a bias – that maybe tactile drawing is not that meaningful to a blind kid. But of course, all drawing is meaningfulif it is given time to develop. Some kids may be more into it than others but without the tools always on hand, encouraged and used in a social way (think of sighted kids how drawing is a shared activity that builds bonds), our blind students do not even get a chance for drawing to become an enjoyable meaningful activity!

In this series, Jessica McDowell, TSVI extraordinaire, provides Logan with a tactile graphic rich environment in preschool and elementary school. We will observe Logan’s natural progression of drawing skills throughout these early years. Under Jessica’s guidance, Logan had unlimited access to tactile drawings and drawing materials, and he eagerly drew! Early on, there was a lot of modeling of drawing, student directed drawing, hand under hand, and Logan figuring out how to make marks to represent animals and things. This eager student had access to so many tactile images in books and educational materials.

“Tactile drawings” vs. “tactile graphics”

Let’s think about our terms. “Tactile graphics” feels like the academic graphics, that come with strict guidelines. “Tactile drawings” or simply “drawing” or “pictures” are the creative images for our students; there are no best practices for these drawings, simply let your imagination run wild! These drawings can be created by anyone, a teacher, family member, peer or BLV student.


Drawings are symbols – like letters. Logan fully participated in gen ed art class creating things with various media. Jessica made sure Logan that had drawing boards in every classroom, at home and any place he regularly spent time, such as at his grandma’s house. The drawing film was frequently replenished in all locations to ensure that Logan always had access to drawing materials. Other kids in the classroom had access to and used drawing boards. Pen and paper ARE everywhere for sighted kids – they explore and create with it in the classroom, at home, and whenever they want. Tactile “pen and paper” is expensive and is used intermittently. Tactile “pen and paper” is usually “managed” by a teacher. Logan, with his unlimited access to drawing materials and Jessica’s systematic approach to a tactile graphic rich environment, developed drawing skills just like his sighted peers. Even though he’s blind, the tactile images mean as much to him as drawings do to sighted kids. 

Jessica commented that, “Logan is a regular kid – with a lot of access to drawings and drawing tools. Drawing and art for Logan has progressed in a similar way as it does for sighted kids.”

Tactile Graphic Rich Environments series

The first four posts in this series will include examples of activities, examples of tactile graphics and/or drawings, video (including clips of Logan), and key points for each section. The last two posts demonstrate two easy ways to create tactile images using a PIAF or Swell machine.

The Tactile Graphic Rich Environments series will cover:

by Diane Brauner; ideas from Jessica McDowell

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Kindergarten Logan in a literacy small group reading his illustrated braille book.

Early elementary: Tactile pictures and drawing, engaging students in literacy activities

Index finger tracing a tactile graphic image of a snake.

HOW TO make a tactile image using iPad, Goodnotes and Swell Machine, part 7

Using a black pen, tracing a student drawing onto Swell paper which is over a raised line drawing on top of the Lightbox.

HOW TO turn a tactile drawing film drawing into PIAF image: Sharpie method