Reading to your child is important for their development in so many ways, including teaching about different concepts and experiences, improving communication skills, and getting ready for learning to read. If your child is blind or has low vision, adapting books so that they have a tactile aspect to them—reading the books also involves touching them—will provide engagement more in the reading experience. Even if your child has a lot of usable vision, adding some tactile information to a book or creating a story box or bag to go with it will make reading even more fun for both of you.

Picking a Book

When you pick a book to read with your child, look for a book that has ideas, objects, and activities in it that will be relevant to your child. Your child takes a bath regularly, so a book about bath time will be something they understand because of a similar experience. If your child has low vision, pick books that have pictures without a lot of clutter around them. Look for pictures that have good contrast with the background. Let your child get as close as they want so the pictures are easier to see.

Not every book will be one your child can relate to from firsthand experience. A book about going on a safari in the jungle is going to be more difficult to understand because they have not had this experience. A book may contain concepts and ideas with which your child is not familiar, try to make the book relatable. If the safari book has a section about a lion, for example, you can talk about the lion at the zoo. Perhaps, your child has not seen a lion at the zoo but has had experience with a cat, talk about how a lion is much bigger than a cat, has very sharp claws, and like a cat, has four paws, a tail, and fur.

If you and your child will be having a new experience, find a book about that experience. You can use the book as a way to help prepare for the new experience and to introduce new vocabulary. If your child can’t see the pictures in the book, you may need to give brief and clear explanations, referring to previous experiences. After the experience, read the book together again so the two of you can talk about the experience.

Books are also available in both print and braille for children who are likely to become braille readers. You can read the print to your child while encouraging your child to run their fingers along the braille. These books can be borrowed free from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped or purchased from organizations like Seedlings and National Braille Press, or your child’s teacher of students with visual impairments may be able to loan some to you.

Adding Tactile Drawings and Braille to a Book

Virtually all children love books with textures and objects that match the story, and these features are especially helpful for children with little or no vision. When your child’s books have pictures that they are not able to see, you can also add your own tactile component to the picture. To do this, look at the picture and figure out what is important in understanding the story.

When you add tactile material to the picture, only add it to the important parts of the picture. You don’t need to add a lot of detail, such as the child’s eyes and nose; you’re helping your child learn that this texture stands for that item or element in the picture.

You may come across instructions or devices for making tactile drawings or diagrams—representations of pictures in which the lines are raised. However, keep in mind that a raised two-dimensional drawing, such as a drawing of a hairbrush, isn’t like a real three-dimensional hairbrush and won’t necessarily convey an image of that object to your child. Your child first needs experiences and understanding of a hairbrush before they can understand that a picture of it is the same as the object.

When possible, you can add real objects to the drawings. Adding two to three textures per pages is sufficient in most instances.

If your child is a braille reader or a potential braille reader, you can add braille to the book. Several companies make a clear laminate that you can braille on and then cut out and affix to the page. Your child’s teacher of students with visual impairments can show you how to do this and help you with learning the necessary braille.

Another idea is to make your own tactile books together with your child about experiences or activities they enjoy.

Making Story Bags or Story Boxes

Story bags or story boxes are a collection of materials that are used to demonstrate the story when reading a particular book, whether it is a print picture book or one with braille added to the pages. When collecting materials to put in the story bag or box, look for things that your child will enjoy touching. You don’t have to have every object named in the book.

Focus on a collection of objects that are important in acting out the story. You might have a book about a boy who lives on a farm and enjoys playing in the mud, feeding hay, collecting eggs, and eating tomatoes. It won’t be possible to get the animals in the story for your story box, of course, but you might get some hay, a hard-boiled egg, and a tomato. As you and your child read the book together, you can have your child pull each object out of the box as you read about it.

When acting out a story, avoid using plastic objects such as pretend fruit or miniature animals. For a child who is blind, there is little or no resemblance between a miniature plastic horse and the large, warm, breathing creature covered with hair that is the real animal. Not only that but feeling the difference between a plastic tomato and a plastic apple may be difficult for many children. It is best to use real objects whenever possible. If you need to use something that is not real—such as a stuffed mouse rather than a real one—talk with your child about the difference between “pretend” and “real.”

Whether you’re reading books from the library, a favorite bedtime book off the bedroom shelf, a print-and-braille storybook, or a book you’ve made yourself, adding the experience of touch to your reading session will help make the book come alive for your child.