What are Functional Activities?
It often takes quite a long time for students who are blind or visually impaired with additional disabilities to learn a new skill. It may also be difficult for them to use the skill that they have learned in one area in another context. For example, some students are taught to count rotely (saying out loud "1, 2, 3.."). While this is not a bad skill to learn, it is also important for them to have a chance to practice the skills in the natural environment, such as counting out chairs at a table or cups at meal time.
Why should we teach functional activities?
Teaching a functional skill in the natural context makes it much easier for students to practice and remember the skill. Individuals who are blind with additional disabilities often have difficulty transferring skills to new situtations. For example, if a student learns to place pegs in a pegboard, he may not be able to place bottles in a crate or eggs in an egg crate. Similarly, a student learning to sort blocks may not be able to sort coins or clothing items. For individuals who are in their teen years, it is important to think about what skills they will need in their adult life and try to teach those skills in the natural environment.
Teaching many skills through one activity
Nearly all functional activities offer the opportunity of teaching many skills at the same time. General skills, such as communication, social interaction, problem solving, fine motor coordination, concept development, literacy, and numeracy can be taught in almost any activity. For example, during a cooking activity students can work on some of the following skills:
- Language skills: identifying ingredients and kitchen tools
- Social skills: greeting others, sharing, and practicing using good manners ("please", "thank you")
- Organizational skills and problem solving: gathering materials, figuring out what to do if you don't have all of the things you need
- Basic concepts: hot/cold, wet/dry, more/less
- Positional concepts: above/below, in/on/under, in front of/in back of
- Fine motor skills: grasping and releasing tools, opening and closing containers, increasing finger and hand strength, using two hands together
- Literacy: making a list of all of the ingredients, reading the recipe, writing a story or report about the activity after it is finished
- Number concepts: comparing quantities (more/less), counting, addition, subtraction, measurement,
Teaching students at different levels
Functional activities often lend themselves well to groups of students at different levels. While it is difficult to teach a single reading or math lesson using traditional textbooks to students at very different levels, this can be done in functional activities by looking at the needs and abilities of the individual students. For example, in a trip to the market, a wide range of math and number concepts can be taught:
- basic skills like "more" and "less" (e.g. which one has more bananas?)
- counting (e.g. how many onions?)
- identification of money
- addition and subtraction on many levels (e.g. "If we have one lemon here and 3 limes there, how many do we have all together?" or if the total cost is 2 dollars and I give the shopkeeper 5 dollars, how much change should I receive?)
- multiplication and division (e.g. "If one tomato costs 40 cents, how much do 5 tomatoes cost?"
- weights and measurements
The same is true for every part of the curriculum. Language and communication, social skills, reading, writing, science, orientation and mobility can all be taught at multiple levels through a single functional activity.
Finding opportunities to teach functional skills
Ideally functional skills should be taught in the natural setting, or as close as possible to the natural setting, but that may not always be possible due to availability of staff, transport, the needs of the individual students, and other factors. With a bit of creativity, however, you may well find that there are many opportunities in your school or village. If you have difficulty thinking of opportunities, consider the following questions:
1. What jobs are being done at the school now that students might be able to help with? This does not mean that students would replace the regular staff, but rather that students might be able to work along side of them or do small parts of the job. Look for ideas in the garden, the office, and the dining hall. Can the students help to wash vegetables or set tables? Pick up sticks or remove debris from the ground? Deliver messages or help with photocopying? The possibilities are endless once you start looking.
2. What jobs might you be able to create? For example, do teachers in the school wish for a cup of tea during the day? Could your students make tea and deliver it?
3. Can you make something that the students could sell? Snacks are often a good place to start.
4. If the individual doesn't go to school, look for ideas in the village or neighborhood. Is there an elderly person who needs help around the house? What about helping to care for animals or children or gardens?
Youth who are blind with additional disabilities may not be able to do all of the parts of an activity, but once you begin to look for opportunities, you will find that there are many ways to develop functional skills throughout the daily routine.