Tactile Sensory Play Activities

I have never been much of one to label my parenting “style” or “methodology,” but I suppose if I had to I would say I’m somewhat “Montessori-ish” in the sense that I value hands-on learning activities that foster independence and collaborative learning. I also highly value imaginative free play, which means I spent years avoiding (or at least limiting) toys that produce various lights, music (except for instruments, of which we have many), or sounds…. And then I was blessed with a child with Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI).

Rosalie was exiting Phase I CVI and starting to cross into Phase II the first time we got her official “CVI Range Score” from an endorsed professional (find one near you!), but was still a young baby with delayed motor skills so a lot of what I first implemented involved Phase I strategies to get her looking. LIGHTS, SHINY THINGS, and TOYS THAT LIGHT UP quickly found their way into our home as I resigned myself to (and perhaps grieved a little) the fact that Rosalie’s CVI meant she just would not be a “Montessori learner.”

But you know what is super Montessori and arguably MORE important for children with CVI than for their typically-sighted and/or neurotypical peers? HANDS-ON SENSORY PLAY!

These days I find myself being far more intentional about providing tactile, active learning experiences for Rosalie than I ever was for her big brothers (after all, with typical sight they have access to incidental learning). There are so many ways to tap into your inner-Montessori (if that’s a thing?) and incorporate sensory play, so today I will share just three activities we’ve been doing.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Nurturing and strengthening the tactile sense is a great way to help children with visual impairments feel more secure and confident responding to everyday sensory information they will encounter. However, due to the nature of being a neurological-based vision impairment, we know that children with CVI may struggle to “use” their vision while focusing on competing senses. Be clear about the goal of an activity.

For example, is the primary goal the sensory experience (this especially makes sense for a child in Phase I, but can apply to higher Phases of CVI as well)? Then don’t worry about whether or not a child is looking! Is the goal (which might make sense for a child in Phase II or III CVI) to begin incorporating functional vision into hands-on experiences? If so, it becomes imperative to design activities that will carefully consider the CVI Ten Characteristics and the individual’s CVI Phase and Range Score.

1. Sensory Bin

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Picture of a sensory bin made from tupperware, dry beans, and pom-poms.

Our new teacher for the visually impaired (TVI) brought us this sensory bin. It’s made from a tupperware container (we close it with the lid when not in use!), white beans, and red pom-poms. The contrast between the hard beans and soft pom-poms (along with how they feel and sound when moved around) provides a stimulating tactile experience.

The pops of bright red color make it easier for Rosalie to see the contrasted items (color, complexity); once I gave her ample time to simply explore the bin with her hands, we transitioned to grabbing her visual attention with the pom-poms.

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Picture of Rosalie exploring items from a sensory bin with her hands.

Rosalie is strongly opposed to “hand over hand” strategies and I refuse to make any sort of play an unpleasant experience for her, so it’s crucial that I go at her pace in a non-invasive way. So, when she is resistant to new items (novelty) I begin by asking if she simply wants to touch or tap it (and when she is especially opposed *Mommy* will offer to touch it first, selling it for all it’s worth as a fun or interesting item). 😉

Rosalie understands the words “touch,” “tap,” “grab,” “hold,” “squeeze,” etc. If I scale back what I’m asking her to do (instead of asking her to hold something foreign right off the bat!) she is usually a willing participant. So we begin with just a touch. A tap. Just feeling (and narrating everything along the way, of course). And gradually move towards holding.

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Picture of Rosalie sorting red pom-poms out of a sensory bin.

Rosalie has grown more comfortable with the feel of the beans and pom-poms (I even had to teach her not to put the beans in her mouth!), so we can now make this sensory activity more focused on visual and fine motor tasks. We work on scanning, reaching, and grabbing. In the picture above you can see that Rosalie was in the process of picking red pom-poms out of the bin and had already successfully found four!

2. Play Dough

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Picture of Rosalie holding play dough while sitting in her high chair.

I never introduced play dough to my other kids until they were at least two years old, but in Rosalie’s case I simply wanted her to experience it as a sensory activity. Functional vision is always a work in progress, but in terms of fine motor skills we have mastered “tapping” items and are now teaching Rosalie “finger pointing,” so her occupational therapist recommended play dough; basically anything that gets her squeezing and manipulating her fingers is good for improving finger isolation, which in turn will help her learn to point (it’s rarely ever as simple as JUST working on tactile sensory play, is it?).

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Picture of Rosalie squeezing play dough.

Even though it’s a sensory activity, I always strive to accommodate CVI so that Rosalie can use her vision more easily if/when she becomes less distracted by the touch and taps into looking.

This was achieved with play dough by placing the bright (color) play dough on her black high chair tray. The solid color(s), contrast of the dough on the tray, and only presenting 1, 2, or 3 pieces in just 1 or 2 colors minimized the visual complexity.

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Picture of Rosalie reaching for and successfully grabbing play dough on a tray.

3. Water Play

Does it get much simpler than water? No added toys are necessary for a tactile experience!

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Picture of Rosalie feeling and splashing water with her hands while sitting in a kiddie pool.

We have fun with water play in the bath, swimming pool, and (pictured) our plastic kiddie pool. Now that Rosalie is working on a lot of (supported) standing in physical therapy, I have imminent plans to start including her when her brothers play in our backyard water table as well.

Water play can also be done by filling up various containers (bins, bowls, cups, etc.), but Rosalie is so young and gets really into splashing, so I personally prefer activities that already have her in a swimsuit or the bathtub. 😉

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Picture of Rosalie tactilely exploring a toy sea star while sitting in a kiddie pool.

Sometimes I keep it simple and literally just use water – but other times I include other toys/textures by introducing various bath toys (animals, foam letters, boats). I maximize the potential for her to “use” her vision by keeping the complexity low (just a few, solid-colored or minimally-patterned toys at once) and sometimes adding light with these bath toys.

What are some of YOUR favorite sensory activities for a child with CVI? Share them in the comments below for other readers to find. 🙂

Want more ideas for sensory play with a visually-impaired child? Check out these articles on Paths to Literacy:

For more on CVI and active learning:

Introductory CVI Reading (For Parents or Professionals)

So, someone you know has received a diagnosis of Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI). Or perhaps you suspect a CVI diagnosis, despite medical and/or educational professionals refusing to put a name to the condition…. But what is CVI? And how can you learn about it?


I wish I could say that the pediatric ophthalmologist sent me home with some medical literature to read through on the day she diagnosed my daughter with CVI. She didn’t.

I wish I could say I was given a pamphlet or card with a list of resources that would teach the basics of what I needed to know. But I wasn’t.

Unlike every other time my daughter has been given a new medical diagnosis, I was sent home empty-handed. No written medical information, no leaflets, no book or website recommendations. Nothing but a diagnosis – and instructions to wait for the state agency to call about setting up vision services once they received the doctor’s referral.


Creating a Felt Wall

As my daughter with Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) has progressed further into Phase II, I find myself constantly searching for new ways to integrate her vision with everyday functions. There are all kinds of ways to visually adapt Rosalie’s everyday “free play” time (creating defined spaces, providing toys and an environment that address the ten characteristics of CVI, etc.), but one tool I created specifically for this purpose is: a felt wall.


What is a “felt wall,” you ask? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Instead of making a “felt board,” I selected part of a wall in our play room to cover with felt. This provides a sturdy back-drop on which I can display any number of felt pieces.


“Rosalie, Small but Mighty” (Interview on Kaleidoscope: The Cortical Visual Impairment Podcast)

Do you know Parent CVI Advocate Jessica Marquardt? If not, you should! In 2018 she launched Kaleidoscope: The Cortical Visual Impairment Podcast, where she discusses the growing public health crisis within the world of vision impairments (spoiler alert: it’s CVI!), sharing stories of neuroplasticity and visual perception.


Jessica launched this much-needed podcast the same month my daughter, Rosalie, was diagnosed with CVI – so listening to Kaleidoscope has been an integral part of my journey as a CVI parent. I have eagerly devoured each new episode, taking heart that I am not alone and gaining insight, tips, and inspiration from others directly impacted by CVI. When Jessica asked if I would sit for an interview I felt honored and, of course, said yes!


Highlighting Light Switches

My daughter with Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) recently TURNED OFF HER BEDROOM LIGHT SWITCH FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME! To be clear, I was holding Rosalie in my arms when she flipped the switch – so no, my child who is not yet fully mobile did not suddenly learn to climb. 😉

This seemingly “simple” task is often taken for granted by parents of typically-developing children, but the rest of us probably know and understand what an accomplishment this is for a child with a vision impairment (and the delayed fine motor skills that result from it).

How did we achieve this particular skill? Well, it started with me thinking of things her brothers liked to do for fun at her age and then creating a goal to help her build the functional vision and fine motor skills to do one of those activities: flipping light switches up and down!

Rosalie is achieving milestones at her own pace, but her desire (and need) for constant play and learning is no less than it is for my other children. I knew that turning off her bedroom light switch would not be as “simple” as it was for her brothers, but I made it a goal nonetheless. And not only are light switches fun, but turning them on or off is a useful everyday life skill. Win-win!


Celebrations and CVI Strategies

We recently celebrated a big milestone in our daughter’s life: she has been surgery-free for an entire year!!! Because Rosalie has a brain condition called hydrocephalus, she had surgery to place a piece of hardware called a shunt (which manages the condition) at two days old. Unfortunately, shunts are notorious for having complications; 40% of shunts fail within a year, 50% fail within two years, and 80% fail within ten years. Rosalie’s first shunt developed an infection and her second malfunctioned. They say the “third time’s the charm,” and we are so happy that this 3rd shunt has lasted an entire YEAR without complications!

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This 1-year “Shuntiversary” called for a celebration – but those of you that have children with Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) know that parties come with some challenges.