Surely the younger a child is when he starts school the greater head-start he has for later academic achievement? Although this sounds logical, it is not necessarily true. Starting school is a significant milestone in a child’s life, and in order for him to rise to this challenge certain other important milestones need to have been met. His ability to benefit from formal educationmay in fact be compromised if they have not developed. The building blocks which need to be mastered before a child is ready for school include gross and fine motor co-ordination, communication skills, listening skills, visual processing skills and emotional maturity. These abilities are integrated and interdependent, and continue to develop through the child’s primary school years. The child needs to be ready for school on all levels so that formal education can be effective, easy and exciting. If he is ready for school he will be successful and this will facilitate further learning.

People are visually oriented beings, and a large proportion of learning in the classroom takes place visually, so this article will focus on visual perception as one of the building blocks for school readiness.

What is Visual Perception?

Visual Perception refers to the brain's ability to make sense of what the eyes see. This is not the same as visual acuity, which refers to how clearly a person sees. A person can have 20/20 vision and still have problems with visual perceptual processing. Just as there is a difference between hearing and listening, so there is a difference between looking and seeing.

Why is it important?

Good visual perceptual skills are essential for many every day skills as well as school activities such as reading, writing, completing puzzles, cutting, drawing, and completing maths problems. Without the ability to complete thesetasks, a child's self esteem may suffer and his academic performance may be compromised.

Visual Perception is complex

Perceiving the visual world in a meaningful way requires a number of inter-related skills. These include:

    • Visual Attention: The ability to focus on important visual information and filter out unimportant background information.
    • Visual Discrimination: The ability to determine differences or similarities in objects based on characteristics such as size, colour, shape, etc.
    • Visual Memory: The ability to recall the visual elements of an object.
    • Visual Spatial Relationships: Understanding the relationships of objects within the environment, eg. Left/right, up/down, etc.
    • Visual Sequential-Memory: The ability to recall a sequence of objects in the correct order.
    • Visual Figure Ground: The ability to locate something in a busy background.
    • Visual Form Constancy: The ability to know that a form or shape is the same, even if it has been changed in some way, e.g. made smaller/larger or has been turned around.
    • Visual Closure: The ability to recognise a form or object when part of the picture is missing.
  • Visual Analysis and Synthesis: The ability to perceive the separate elements of an object or word, and put them together as a whole, e.g. in spelling and reading.

Everyday Activities to Develop Visual Perception

Learning begins long before a child starts school, and this can be facilitated by parents and care-givers. Most children naturally develop the ability to process their world visually, but there are a number of activities that can be integrated into your daily routine to help stimulate visual perception. It is important to remember that parents are not teachers or therapists for their own children! And we are not aiming to produce a generation of Super-Kids!

  1. Use books with objects hidden in a picture, such as “Where’s Wally?”, to help your child filter out irrelevant elements and find the object. This will develop his visual attention and figure-ground perception.
  2. Shopping with children can be stressful! But it can also be an opportunity for learning – let your child help select what you need by colour, shape, size, etc. Help him to match and discriminate between objects.
  3. While driving in the car or doing daily activities such as eating or bathing, play games such as “I Spy”, using visual clues rather than letters of the alphabet, e.g. “I Spy something red and round.”
  4. Using blocks or household objects,get the child to copy designs and sequences.
  5. Draw an incomplete figure or object and ask the child to complete it.
  6. Using a book with busy pictures, ask the child to look at the picture for a while and then describe it. Encourage specific details, which will help improve visual memory as well as figure-ground perception.
  7. When you are outdoors, ask the child to look around, then close his eyes and try to recall what is around him.
  8. Starting at a simple level and becoming more complex, get your child to sort objects according to size, colour, shape, texture, etc.
  9. Play card games that require matching and discrimination between pictures, e.g. “Snap”.
  10. Puzzles are an excellent activity for developing a variety of visual skills, including analysis, synthesis, and discrimination.
  11. Using two pictures that appear the same but have certain differences, let your child find the differences.
  12. While driving, particularly on longer journeys, ask the child to try and spot certain things in the passing environment, such as cars of a certain colour, people with children, etc.
  13. It is not easy, nor is it necessary, to stop children from watching TV, but asking them questions after they have watched a programme encourages them to be more focussed as they watch.

“What counts is what you learn after you know it all!” (Earl Weaver). Sending children to school with fundamental skills will give them a head-start for successful learning.