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Visual Perception – A Vital Cognitive Skill in Early Years

Cognitive skills are a determining factor of an individual’s learning ability. When cognitive skills are weak, learning becomes a struggle.

Each of our cognitive skills plays an important role in processing new information. So, even if one of these skills is weak, then grasping, retaining or processing information is eventually affected and this leads to most learning challenges.

Visual perception is a vital cognitive skill to be developed in the early years. It plays an important role in preparing the child for their academic journey. Different aspects of visual perception, such as recognising a face in a crowd, finding a lost toy in a cluttered cupboard, being able to read a map require visual perception. Recognising letters and numbers and matching shapes are essential skills in learning to read and write. A child can have perfect 20/20 vision but might experience visual perception difficulties.

What is visual perception?

Perception is being able to interpret the information that your different senses receive from your surroundings. This ability depends on your particular cognitive processes and prior knowledge. Visual perception could be defined as the ability to interpret information that our eyes receive. 

If the visual perception of a child is not clear, he/she will find his/her world confusing and face challenges in performing tasks. Subsequently, their academic performance will also be impacted as they may struggle with reading and writing. Poor attention and concentration may prevent them from retaining concepts. They may also experience behavioural problems and avoid engaging in activities that require visual perception skills.

Different areas of visual development

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

Visual attention

It is the ability to focus on important visual information and filter out unimportant background information. This allows us to perform everyday tasks, such as walking and driving, without injuring ourselves. Poor visual attention lowers the ability to avoid obstacles while walking. 

Visual discrimination

It is the ability to determine differences or similarities of objects including size, colour, shape, etc. Children with weak visual discrimination cannot properly recognise letters, shapes and words when they are not written in the standard left to right arrangement.

Visual-spatial relationships

Visual-spatial relations is an important visual perception skill that is important for many functional tasks. It is the ability 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 with visual-spatial problems may struggle with alphabets that look similar and instructions related to positions. For instance, a child may write the letters ‘b’ and ‘d’ the wrong way. He/She may not properly understand positional language, like ‘under’, ‘over’ or ‘sideways’. They may also struggle with where to start writing on a page and have difficulties writing on a line, spacing letters and words.

Visual memory

Recalling or remembering the visual details of what you have seen is called visual memory. It can help develop the memory skills that your child needs in order to learn sight words. Poor visual memory impacts the recognising ability, for example, copying from the board. 

Visual sequential memory

The ability to remember visual details in the correct order is known as visual sequential memory. It is essential for spelling and reading, where the child needs to remember the sequence of letters. Similarly, when doing multiple digit addition and subtraction, visual sequential memory is essential to help the child copy the numbers in the correct order.

Visual-motor integration

The effective communication between the hands and the eyes is visual motor integration, also referred to as eye-hand coordination.

This enables a child to draw, write or copy what they have seen. Kids who struggle to integrate or coordinate their visual systems and their motor systems may struggle with handwriting as well as with other school skills.

Visual closure

The ability to recognise and name an object when only a part of it is visible is referred to as visual closure. It is the way the mind uses past information to fill in the blanks to envision the whole. A child weak in visual closure may face difficulties with writing, reading and completing puzzles and jigsaws.

Form constancy

Form constancy is a visual perception skill that requires recognising items regardless of their change in shape, colour, size, texture, context or orientation. 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. 

Figure-ground perception

A person’s ability to separate an object from its surrounding visual field is referred to as figure-ground perception. The object that a person focuses on is called the figure and everything else is referred to as background. 

A child experiencing problems in this area will have trouble concentrating on books with small print and/or many words per page, copying notes from the board, etc. 

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

Non-cluttered classrooms: Ensure that the classroom is clutter-free to minimise the distraction and background visual information, thereby enabling children to stay focused. 

Fun activities: Plan fun activities based on the child’s interests as they are more likely to engage and stay focused for a longer period of time. The activities and tasks should be simple enough to engage children and build up their confidence.

Sensory activities: Plan sensory activities, such as writing letters or drawing shapes in sand and glitter so that the child can learn the direction of writing. Use straws to make shapes and letters so the child can recognise and feel the shapes. 

Visual focus activities: Develop activities that involve looking for items, such as spotting the difference or covering a part of an item and asking them to guess what it is. Always start with simple activities to boost confidence and interest in the activity. When solving puzzles with the child, keep it simple and cover the pieces, allowing them to focus on one piece at a time.

Constancy activities: 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 develop their form constancy.

Environment-based teaching and learning: Use surrounding items to teach shapes, numbers and alphabets to children. For example, the shape of windows – square or rectangle, the shape of the clock – circle or square or rectangle. Play games that involve naming and matching shapes to increase their development.

Reading activities: When reading a book, encourage children to point to the start of each line and follow with a finger, so that they can learn that text starts from the left travelling to the right.

Realising that visual perception skills are important in learning and developing cognitive abilities in children, we as facilitators of early years learning, need to focus on the same while in classroom transactions.

Like all of our cognitive abilities, visual perception can be trained and improved. As visual perception improves, information relay from the eyes to the brain will be quicker and more efficient. Facilitators need to design tasks challenging enough to improve visual perception skills in the early years. 

Rama Devi Mavuri

Rama Mavuri has 18+ years of experience in early childhood education. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education, a Diploma in Montessori Teaching, a Post Graduate Diploma in Early Childhood Education, Masters in Business Administration and English.


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