Tangible geography, 1931

Recording of a 1931 article describing interactive geography lessons at Perkins where the students craft map drawings. Instead of drawing they create tactile maps made out of plasticine and paraffin on wooden trays, using a braille map as reference.

Display of tactile maps made by students with plasticine from 1937.

Historical note

Perkins’ founding director, Samuel Gridley Howe had traveled extensively and knew that his students would need to understand geography in order to function in the world. In 1837, Howe commissioned Stephen Preston Ruggles to make the large tactile globe with a 13-foot circumference and constructed from over 600 pieces of wood. (Coon, 1956). Ruggles also made several tactile maps made of carved wood and a variety of additional materials for the geography curriculum. Howe was among the first to develop methods that allowed for the production of tactile maps in quantity. Perkins embossed paper maps that were published as atlases in the 1830s.


McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Geography. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA. Available on

Collection access

This Annual Report has been digitized and is available on the Internet Archive in its entirety, however transcriptions may be error-prone or missing altogether. Learn more about Perkins Archives digitized text and how to request accessible resources.

Pratt, Clara L. “Tangible Geography in the Boys’ Department at Perkins.” Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind One Hundredth Annual Report of the Trustees 1931, pp. 49-51. Available on the Internet Archive.

Notice and permissions

This recording is a digitized copy of audio created for the Perkins Museum circa 2011. Copyright belongs to Perkins School for the blind. This recording may be quoted if cited. A preferred citation is provided. For any other uses please contact [email protected].

Preferred citation

Pratt, Clara L. “Tangible Geography in the Boys’ Department at Perkins.” Recording of reading, circa 2011. 2022-25, Perkins Museum Recordings, AG217 Perkins Museum Collection, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.


Recorded reading of “Tangible geography in the Boys’ Department”.


Tangible geography in the Boys’ Department at Perkins

Most children like action and a feeling of ownership. What oftenest leads to the problem of discipline in the classroom? The absence of the two things mentioned above. In the Boys’ Department at Perkins we have given opportunity for activity, and the pupils soon acquire a feeling of ownership because of the product of their hands.

In public schools map drawing is usually required. Why not in schools for blind pupils also? It would not be feasible to use paper and pencil as others do; but we find in plasticine a most satisfactory material with which to construct maps on wooden trays. Fine rolls of this compound are made, then the pupil, while following a braille map with one hand, lays these rolls as accurately as he can with the other. A three years’ course sees progress made from a crude map which is a mere outline to a finished map, — of as much detail as is practical for the touch to analyze, and often it is a thing of beauty.

Does the teacher do much of the work for the pupil? Oh, no! The pupil derives benefit from his own work, — not the teacher’s. Let the teacher give only verbal criticism and the necessary encouragement; but she must believe in her methods and show it in her voice. Some people might be surprised to know that many of the schemes used on our maps were thought up by the pupils who kept me very busy supplying their demands for sundry materials with which to experiment. I tell my classes that since they, the non-seeing, are the ones to use the maps, they should best be able to tell what is most satisfactory for a tangible map. Before I was aware of it, one boy had a map nearly done, applying a new method of using tinsel paper rolled fine for rivers. The effect was very pleasing. Another used paraffin for mountain tops, though we later replaced this with white plasticine for the reason that it was much easier to handle. Beads were called for to locate cities, and various colors of plasticine were in demand to show territory owned by the various nations. Do the totally blind enjoy the use of colors? Yes, because many remember having seen and others enjoy the compliments of the seeing who often exclaim over their attractiveness.

A special table has been provided to hold twelve work trays, not only because this is a neat and convenient way to care for them, but largely because it is another way to teach pupils to care for their own materials. The table has four sections of three tiers each, so the pupil has only to remember in which section he left his map and he is ready to take up his work at any time or to show it to any visiting friends who may come at some time other than during class.

Every attempt has been made to have things tangible. We have a season apparatus whereby pupils may observe the principles of day and night and of the changing seasons; globes prepared, once for all, by the teacher of geography for the reckoning of latitude and longitude as well as for the study of the continents and zones; dissectible wall maps for quick reference in class; a geoplanus to explain the exaggerations of the Mercator map; geography games, made by the pupils, to turn review work into pleasure and to prevent the final period before vacation from being too much for our restless spirits.

Desk puzzle maps also, such as are used by seeing children, are so much in evidence in my rooms that one might think we used them as class exercises, but such is not the case. I leave them around for the boys to use in their free time, and I watch with interest those who take advantage of them. I know that these maps are much used and enjoyed, but I have never been convinced that they help the pupils much to understand the country, except perhaps after they have had experience in constructing maps of their own of the same territory represented. I might even say that I believe practically all interest in prepared maps is based upon previous experience in making their own maps, for I distinctly remember how different was the attitude of pupils toward map exercises before we introduced this method. The majority were almost afraid of maps, realizing their limited understanding of them.

After several years of experimentation and growth we believe the tangible method of teaching geography the only practical one. Not only do those who take this course obtain a clearer conception of many things, but it lends a normal atmosphere to the classroom; makes the pupils more self-reliant and confident in their own ability; and gives the opportunity for self-expression.

For the teacher it means that the need for discipline is almost absent because her pupils are happy in accomplishment.  There is also the satisfaction to her of knowing that the blind can be taught as effectively as the seeing. However, because enthusiasm and resourcefulness are needed to teach geography this way, I suggest the subject be taught departmentally by a teacher who loves teaching and is willing to give herself to it.

Clara L. Pratt.

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