Tucked away at the edge of Perkins School for the Blind’s campus is a treasure trove of colorful toys.
Cuddly bears, tiny teacups and braille books fill the room from floor to ceiling. These same toys travel across New England to help students with visual impairments learn and develop.
It’s the Perkins Toy and Resource Library – an invaluable source of educational toys and other items that itinerant teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) can borrow for their students.
“Having the Toy Library allows you to try things you could never afford and wouldn’t have access to,” said Perkins TVI Charlene Laferrera. “It allows you to be a better teacher, and it gives you the chance to educate parents and schools about how materials can make a difference.”
Toys are an important resource for helping kids learn – especially kids who are blind or visually impaired. Playing with toys can improve a child’s motor skills, cognitive functioning and verbal abilities. They also encourage social interaction and spark children’s imaginations.
The Toy Library is used by about three dozen Perkins community teachers and orientation and mobility (O&M) instructors. They work with children ages 0-3 and public school students up to age 22 throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut.
Teachers use toys to accomplish many educational goals. They bring high-contrast toys to toddlers with cortical visual impairment (CVI), and switch-operated toys to children with low muscle tone. They might bring a vision simulator to show public school teachers how various visual impairments affect children’s eyesight, or a LightAide to demonstrate how innovative new devices can help students learn.
Teachers can check out toys for about a month at a time, using an online system created by Laferrera’s husband, Joe. That’s an essential feature since itinerant teachers are always on the road.
“It’s really been terrific,” said Community Programs Director Teri Turgeon. “They can go (into the online system), put in the qualities of the toy they’re looking for, like ‘cause-and-effect’ or ‘music,’ and the database will give them a series of recommendations.”
After teachers check out items, part-time toy librarian Kim Taylor bags them for pick up.
The Toy Library was created about 25 years ago by TVI Cathie Carpenter. Since Turgeon took over operations about a decade ago, she’s greatly expanded its scope. The Toy Library now offers assessment materials, O&M tools like white canes, and high-tech items like the SMART Brailler®. All these items are available for public school students served by Perkins Community Programs.
The expansion was made possible by the ongoing support of Lou and Marcia Kamentsky. They helped the Toy Library move into a larger, more accessible first-floor space, and purchase newer, more modern toys. Older toys were distributed by Perkins International to children with visual impairments in China.
No matter where the toys end up, though, they’re bringing joy to children – and parents.
“Every parent likes to see their kid play,” said Laferrera. “You have to find the right kind of toy for them. The first time they see their kid really reaching out and visually engaging, it’s like, ‘Wow!’”