Last reviewed 28 February 2020

Visual perception is vital in the development of school readiness skills. Liz Hodgman, Childcare Consultant, looks at the different aspects of visual perception and how early years practitioners can support children’s visual perception development through play.

Recognising a face in a crowd, finding a lost toy in a cluttered cupboard, being able to read a map; these are skills that all require visual perception. As are recognising letters and numbers and matching shapes; vital skills in learning to read and write. A child can have perfect 20/20 vision, but experiences visual perception difficulties.

What is visual perception?

Visual perception is how we understand and know about the world and our environment through what we see. If a child has difficulties with their visual perception, they will find their world very confusing and have problems performing tasks that most children take for granted. Their academic performance will be impacted as they may struggle with reading and writing; poor attention and concentration may prevent them from remaining focused on a task and they are likely to become frustrated. They may experience behavioural problems and refuse to engage with activities that require visual perception skills. They may rely on others to do things for them and be slow to develop their independence.

Different areas of visual development

The development of visual perception is complex as there are different areas within it.

Sensory processing

This requires a child to have accurate registration, interpretation and response to sensory stimulation within their environment and their own body.

Visual attention

This term refers to the ability to focus on important visual information and filter out unimportant background information.

Form constancy

This term refers to the ability to recognise and label an object in different environments and from different angles. For example, recognising that an apple is an apple whether it is in a fruit bowl, on a market stall, hanging from a tree or in a photograph. A child who is struggling with form constancy may have trouble matching shapes or letters and doing jigsaws.

Visual discrimination

This refers to the ability to be find differences and similarities between objects. It includes looking at shape, colour and size. Problems with this area can lead to difficulties in recognising letters and shapes, reading words when they are not written in standard left to right, for example, words down the side of a box, and recognising difference between colour and sizes.

Figure-ground perception

This is how we are able to sort one shape or item from a collection, for example pick one apple out of the fruit bowl. Difficulties in this area of development can lead to problems with concentration and organisation, choosing toys from a toy box and finding items.

Visual closure

Being able to recognise and name an object when only part of it is visible is referred to as visual closure. A child experiencing problems in this area may have difficulties with writing, reading and completing puzzles and jigsaws.

Visual spatial relationships

This is being able to understand where your body is in relation to other objects and people in an environment. It includes being able to identify different shapes and understand distance.

A child experiencing problems with visual spatial relationships may write their “b” and “d” the wrong way round as they learn to write and have trouble understanding positional language, for example “under”, “over” or “sideways”. They may struggle with where to start writing on a page and have difficulties writing on a line, spacing letters and words. They may knock things over, trip up and have difficulties walking up and downstairs or through doorways.

Visual memory

Recalling or remembering the visual details of what you see is called visual memory. It is very important when learning to read as it enables a child to remember “sight words”. Poor visual memory can also impact on recognising numbers and letters and copying, for example, from the board into their book when they are at school.

Visual sequential memory

The ability to remember visual details in the correct order is known as visual sequential memory. This skill is needed in spelling, reading and when doing maths.

Visual motor integration

Visual Motor Integration (VMI) involves the effective communication between the hands and the eyes. This enables a child to draw, write or copy what they have seen. Difficulties in this area will impact on handwriting and school work.

How can an early years practitioner support the development of a child’s visual perception?

The first place to start when planning is with the environment. Provide an area for the child to engage with one-to-one support that is not cluttered. This will help to minimise the distraction and background visual information, enabling them to be more focused. Keep posters and visual prompts simple and clear in this area.

Plan fun activities that pick up on the child’s interests as they are more likely to engage and stay focused for longer periods of time. Plan activities and tasks that are achievable and help to build up the child’s confidence.

Plan sensory activities, writing letters or drawing shapes in sand and glitter so the child can learn the direction of writing them. Use straws to make into shapes and letters so the child can feel the shapes which helps them to visualise. Place plastic letters into a bag and encourage the child to feel the different letters.

Develop activities that involve looking for items such as “spot the difference” or covering part of the item and asking them to guess what it is. Start with very simple items to build confidence. When doing puzzles with the child, keep it simple and cover the pieces, focusing on just one piece at a time.

Provide different types of the same object, for example a real apple, a plastic one and a picture of one. This will help the child to develop their form constancy.

Look for shapes in everyday objects and when out and about with the child. For example, the square windows, the circle in the clock. Play games that involve naming and matching shapes, as they get more confident add in matching colours and letters to increase their development.

When sharing a story book with the child point to the start of each line and follow with your finger, so that they can learn that text starts from the left travelling to the right.

Working with parents

Providing useful strategies to parents can help make a child more independent. For example, if a child is having difficulties with their visual spatial relationships suggest to the parents that they dress their child in clothes with pictures or logos on the front. Then keep repeating while dressing, “labels at the back and pictures at the front” to help them understand. Socks that have coloured heels and toes make putting them on much simpler.

Explain to parents that background visual information can distract them from learning while they are playing with them, turning the television off will help reduce this. Discuss with them the amount of tablet (screen) time they allow their child. There are some great apps and games for mobile phones and tablets that can help to develop some visual skills, but they do not work on the full range of visual perception skills and they are sedentary and the same distance from their eyes all the time. They do need greater challenge to develop.

You could produce an ideas sheet to help parents to understand how they can support their child’s visual perception at home.

If you are concerned that a child has difficulties with their visual perception then it is important that you discuss this with their parent or carer, your provision’s SENCO and then if necessary make a referral for professional support. An occupational therapist can undertake an assessment and plan activities to support their development.