Visual Perception is our brain’s ability to make sense of what our eyes see. It is different from visual acuity, which refers to how well our eyes can see (think glasses). Believe it or not, we are constantly using our visual perceptual skills throughout each and every day. Daily tasks like getting dressed, reading fluently, writing our name, and navigating a car around town all share one thing in common: to be completed correctly, they require good perceptual abilities.
Just like a car requires many parts to be driven, visual perceptual skills have multiple parts that often intertwine and operate together. This blog will focus on four key visual perceptual skills and fun ways to practice them at home. Remember that day when your car had a flat tire? Pretty difficult to drive it around, right? Weakness in any one visual perceptual area can cause some confusion in the brain when completing even the most basic task. The good news is that even if a child has some perceptual areas of weakness, they can be strengthened with the right kind of practice!
Visual Discrimination: the ability to determine the details of an image. Recognizing similarities and differences between objects based on size, color, shape, position. Difficulties may make it hard to tell left from right.
Visual Figure Ground: The ability to locate something specific in a busy background. Difficulties with this skill may cause a child to get lost in the details, such as having a hard time finding their shoes in a messy room.
Visual Form Constancy: The ability to know that a form or shape is the same, even if it has been made smaller, larger, is reversed, or has changed color or texture. This is an important skill for reading and understanding different writing fonts. Difficulties with this skill may cause a child to have a hard time deciphering their teachers writing on the board.
Visual Closure: The ability to recognise a form or object when part of it is missing or visualizing the complete whole of an item. Difficulties with this skill are sometimes seen in handwriting with children who have a hard time “closing up” their letters. It is also an important skill for sight word recognition.
First up is the skill of visual discrimination! This visual perceptual skill gets special attention because it is foundational for many other visual perceptual skills. Children who struggle between left and right differentiation, are school-age and reverse their letters (which don’t worry! This is normal until about age 7), or have trouble telling the difference between similar items (r and n, K and H) may have some weaknesses with visual discrimination. The good news? You have items all around your home that you can use to work on this very skill. Take several of any one item that are the same (bananas, forks, crayons) and face them all the same way except one item. Have your child find the one facing the opposite direction. Another idea includes comparing similar items (dolls, cups) to each other to describe what is the same and what is different.
Activities that work on other visual perceptual skills.
Skills worked on: visual discrimination, form constancy, visual closure, visual figure-ground, attention and concentration
Let’s start with some basic activities - puzzles! Puzzles have been a household staple for years, and for good reason. Form board puzzles for babies work on a variety of skills including matching, sizing, eye-hand coordination, shape recognition, just to name a few. As a child grows, their puzzle skills advance into completing interlocking puzzles, also called jigsaw puzzles. Regardless of the level of puzzle, talk about strategies with your child when working on them. Discuss corner and center pieces and make sure that all pieces are right-side up are good starting points for learning the strategies behind completing even the most basic puzzle.
If there are no puzzles at home, don’t be afraid to get creative! Make your own by taking a picture (or having your child draw a picture) and cutting it into pieces. Depending on your child’s ability, the puzzle pieces you create can have simple straight-lines or can mimic a jigsaw puzzle with wavy edges. BONUS: if you have tape on hand for paper puzzles, work on your child taping each piece back together. This works their eye-hand coordination and finger dexterity skills as well.
Skills worked on: visual closure, fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, letter and number recognition and order
Another tried and true teaching tool is the basic dot-to-dot sheet. These can be found online or created at home, and you may just find that you have some hiding in long-forgotten coloring books somewhere in your house. There are many printables online, but rest assured that these are extremely easy to create with just a pencil and paper. For young children who are still working on basic shape formation and recognition, create dots to outline basic shapes (circle, triangle, square) with a number or letter designated per dot. Before connecting the dots, have a child who is still working on letter recognition trace the order with their pointer finger first. BONUS: if scissors are around, you can then have your child cut out the shape. An additional bonus could then be gluing or taping their shape or image to paper and then having them draw a scene surrounding that image!
Skills worked on: figure ground, visual closure, form constancy
If your house is like mine, the pantry is one crazy place! There’s just so much going on in there and try as I might, it does not stay organized. Use that jumbled mess to grow your child’s visual perceptual skills by practicing figure ground! Standing in front of an open pantry (or refrigerator), ask your child to find specific items. Examples include: can you find 3 red things, 4 letter M’s (form constancy as each M may be in a different font type, size, and color), 3 things that we can drink, etc. BONUS is having them find a specific amount of items (listing out 10 items, for example, either written down and/or drawn on a sheet of paper) within a certain time frame, such as letting them set a 5 minute timer. Feel free to then put the car in reverse and have your child ask you to find specific items!
Skills worked on: visual discrimination, figure ground, visual closure, form constancy
Sock Matching. Sure, there are standard matching card games that you can purchase (created in just about every Disney theme nowadays), but leave it up to an OT to turn a boring household chore into a fun game! This can be a good one after a day of laundry. Go through all of those unsorted socks, but throw in a twist by turning it into a game! Take turns with your child to find a matching pair, making it interactive by each counting out loud while you/they find a pair. Who can find a pair in the fastest time? Who can find the most colorful/longest pair? BONUS: afterwards, take all unmatching socks and pile them up from biggest to smallest to set aside for when their mate is washed/found later on. (And maybe even make a bet at the beginning to see how many socks you each think will be left over…)
All in all, I like to think of visual perceptual skills as the ultimate example of teamwork. Working together, these skills allow our brains to perceive and make sense of our world. Strengths in these skills allow our children success with a variety of daily tasks throughout different environments, and what better way than using everyday items to strengthen these skills!