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Much like any other developmental milestone, visual perception is something that every child must learn. It’s an important skill, but it develops over time. There are things you can do to help your child develop this skill more effectively so that they’ll be better prepared for school and other life events.
About Visual Perception
Everyone interacts with the world through their senses, and one of those senses is sight. Children rely on their senses very heavily, and it impacts the way they process things cognitively.
Together with their fine and gross motor skills, these are called perceptual-motor skills. Visual perception refers to the ability your child’s brain has to understand what their eyes see. Their eyes are constantly sending information to their brand for interpretation, but it has to be correctly interpreted.
In addition to visual perception, your child will also need to develop a number of other skills like:
- Gustatory perception (taste)
- Olfactory perception (smell)
- Tactile perception (touch)
- Motor skills like spatial awareness, body awareness, gross and fine motor skills, hand-eye-foot coordination, eye movement, midline crossing, direction awareness, and dominance
The Importance of Visual Perception
Because children learn about the world through their senses at a young age rather than processing things cognitively, their visual perception helps them make sense of what they see.
They begin to learn by what they see and hear before they integrate any other senses, like taste or touch. Sight is important for a child if they are going to be able to understand and interpret the things going on around them.
Children usually develop visual perception by the age of 7.
Visual perception is also critical for school readiness. Formal schooling requires visual perception because it’s needed to learn to read, write, and do math. Their visual perception skills build the foundation for how well they can learn to do these things.
Puzzles, memory games, and other pre-reading activities are much more important at preschool ages than learning letters and numbers because they build the foundation for visual perception better.
A play-based approach is always better for younger children.
Types of Visual Perception Skills
There are several different types of visual perception skills that are important for learning.
This is your brain’s ability to see the similarities and differences in letters and numbers. As you may have probably guessed already, it’s the skill that your child will need to tell the difference between b and d, p and q, or S and 5.
It can be a tough skill to learn, and it’s one of the reasons why rushing your young child to learn their letters or read isn’t necessarily the best tactic. Many children don’t develop this skill until much later.
Girls mature faster than boys, so you may find that your daughter learned to read very early on while your 6 or 7 year old boy is still struggling. That’s okay. Be patient.
This is your brain’s ability to remember what your eyes see. It comes in handy when learning sight words, recognizing letters you’ve learned, or copying from the board at the front of the class.
While phonics, rather than sight words, is generally the best way to teach your child to read, this skill is still an important one for memorizing the way letters and numbers look, and some sight words in the beginning are fine for building confidence.
This is your brain’s ability to remember what it has seen in a sequence. It is especially useful when learning to spell, because, of course, the letters have to go in order. It’s also needed for copying numbers in the correct order for calculations in math.
This skill helps you understand what you’ve seen and conceptualize it. It’s the skill you use when you problem solve and draw conclusions.
Perception of shapes
This is your child’s ability to tell the difference between shapes, no matter their position or size. They should be able to tell the difference between a circle and a square as well as know that something far away looks smaller than it really is.
This skill indicates to your brain that something is either far away or up close, based on movement, speed, and size.
This is your ability to focus on an object and block out whatever is in the background. Your eyes should be able to filter out irrelevant images so you can see only what you want to focus on.
It helps children copy things from the board or keep their place while reading.
Visual analysis and synthesis
This is your brain’s ability to see a pattern as a single unit, but it also gives you the ability to break it into parts and put it back together. Children use this skill when sounding out words and learning to read, but they also use it in math while recognizing patterns and determining the next in a series. It can also be used in problem solving and drawing conclusions.
This skill is used to recognize shapes by seeing only a part of them. It’s used when reading sight words. A child will eventually be able to read a word by seeing the whole rather than breaking it into pieces each time they see it, which increases overall fluency.
It should be apparent now that there’s much more to reading, writing, and math that just learning letters and numbers. Visual perception is an important skill that needs to be developed now with plenty of fun games and exercises.
Problems with Visual Perception
Some children have problems with visual perception. If that’s the case, you may notice that they struggle to complete puzzles or connect dots; they don’t understand spatial concepts like in, out, up, or down; they have trouble telling the difference between letters like b, d, p, and q; they reverse numbers and letters when they write; they lose their place when they read or write; they can’t match socks or other clothes; or they can’t sort out or organize their personal belongings.
These clues will often take time to develop. Don’t jump to the conclusion that your young child is having problems with visual perception too early, because this skill takes until at least the age of 7 to develop fully.
Developing Visual Perception Skills
In order to help your child develop their visual perception skills early, there are plenty of things you can do to help. The best thing you can do is play with them. They don’t need formal activities or worksheets.
1. Play memory
It’s unbelievable how good kids are at this game. My kids always blew me out of the water. They catch on quickly and they’ll soon be beating you.
Shuffle the cards and lay them all out face down on the table. Take turns turning two cards over at a time to see if they match. If they match, you can keep them and go again. If they don’t match, let everyone see the cards and then turn them back over.
It’s a fantastic game for exercising visual memory. Your child will not only have to look at the cards to see if they match, but they’ll have to remember where all of the cards are to find the matching pairs.
You might be surprised at how much your visual perception skills have waned as you’ve traveled through adulthood.
2. Do puzzles
Puzzles are great visual perception exercises because it requires understanding how the pieces should fit together in your mind first. Your child must have an idea of what the final picture should look like and then find the right pieces and how they interlock.
Make puzzles readily available for your child’s regular playtime and make sure they’re age appropriate. Younger children should have puzzles with fewer, bigger pieces.
Puzzles for all children should be challenging, but achievable. If they’re too difficult, your child will lose interest, or worse, feel inadequate.
The best puzzles for children are made of wood with a wooden board on the back that can be used to put the puzzle together and store it afterwards.
3. Sort things
Your child can sort anything, really. Toys, buttons, dry pasta, shapes, or anything else you might have on hand that you think they could organize.
Pasta is fun to sort because it comes in so many different shapes! You can give it to them in plastic tubs and have them sort through it. It’s even safe to eat. Better yet, you can wash it off and still cook it later!
Buttons are a versatile sorting tool because you can sort them by size, color, shape, or number of holes. The possibilities are almost endless, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t a sorting tool for young kids who could still choke.
If the playroom needs to be picked, let your kid in on the task by asking them to organize the toys. You can organize the toys by type (dogs, trains, balls, etc.), size, or color. If your child has siblings, you could also organize it by who the toys belong to.
4. Play I Spy
We all know how to play I spy, and you can certainly always play it the traditional way. It’s a great way to exercise those visual perception skills and teach your child their colors.
However, you can also switch it up to challenge them even more. If your child is learning how to spell, use letters instead. “I spy something that starts with the letter S.”
If you want them to really search for the way an item looks, use more visual descriptors in your clues. “I spy something that is tall, brown, and rough.”
5. Remember what you saw
This game is really fun and can be very challenging. It’s a great way to see what your child is capable of and can be adapted based on their age and skill.
Choose any five items you like from your house, garden, or playroom. Lay them in front of your child and let your child look at them for 30 seconds. They should be able to memorize the items in that time.
Cover the items with a cloth to see if your child can remember all of them. If your child is younger, you can start with fewer items. If your child seems to be able to grasp all five items well, you can increase the number.
Now remove one item and see if your child can figure out which item you removed. Now remove two items. Add an item back or rearrange the order and see if your child can figure out what’s missing or what’s been added back.
There are a lot of things you can do with this game to make it fun, interesting, and challenging. It will keep your child on their toes and help them develop their visual perception skills.
6. Remember patterns
Another variation of the game above is to put the items in order and have your child memorize the order. Mix them up and then have your child put them back in the same order you had them.
You can use cards instead of household items if you like, and you can increase or decrease the number of items based on your child’s skill level.
7. Straight edge puzzles
These types of puzzles are a bit different than jigsaw puzzles. The skill isn’t in making sure the pieces fit together, but in identifying the detail in the picture to make sure they match.
Some people find this more challenging because you don’t have a way to double check to see if you’re right, while others may like it better.
It tends to challenge your skills of visual perception better because the only things you can rely on to make sure the pieces match are the elements in the design, like the colors, shapes, and lines.
8. Where’s Waldo?
Most of us are familiar with the Where’s Waldo books. These classics are a series of books in which you have to find Waldo, a bespectacled man wearing a red and white striped shirt. He’s usually hiding in a busy scene full of wildly entertaining people.
Finding him is a great visual perception activity because he’s not easy to find, but the pictures are fun, and funny. Often, when you’re done finding Waldo, there are plenty of other things to find, too.
Many Where’s Waldo books will exercise your visual perception by having you go back through every scene to find other characters like Wenda, Wizard Whitebeard, Woof, Odlaw, Wilma, or Wally.
In some cases, Waldo has lost a shoe, his glasses, or his cane, or Wizard Whitebeard has lost his staff, and you have to go back and find those items as well.
9. What’s that shape?
This is a fun mystery game that challenges your child’s visual perception skills by seeing how much they know about an object by only viewing a part of it.
Place shapes on the table and cover up half of them with a cloth or a sheet of paper. See if your child can identify the shapes without seeing the entire thing.
Older children may be able to guess the shape with less than half of it revealed while younger children may need you to reveal more of it.
You can also vary the game by picking household items or images from books rather than shapes. Cover everything except for the tail of an animal and see if your child can figure out what it is.
10. Magic Eye books
I’m sure you remember these from when you were a kid. Some people say if you cross your eyes and then uncross them slowly, you’ll see the hidden image. Others say if you relax your eyes and unfocus, it will come into view.
There are a lot of different theories on how you can get the hidden image to show up, but it’s a super fun activity for kids to begin to understand how focusing the human eye works. It’s easier for some people than it is for others.
Visual perception is a skill that everyone needs, and exercising it now will help your child develop it for future use. Almost everything they learn at an early age will be through play, so make it fun.
There’s no need to stress about their early development. Encourage your child to explore the world around them through these activities and before you know it, their visual perception skill may be even better than yours!