We are visual beings.
How we assess our environment, learn new skills, or consume entertainment is primarily through our eyes. We rely on our visual system so heavily that many times we don’t need our additional senses (touch, taste, hear or smell our surroundings) to know what’s going on.
So, if our kids overlook important visual details (like putting on a matching pair of socks), or can’t recall what they saw (“Where did you put your backpack?”), or have trouble discriminating between numbers and letters, it can be very concerning to us as parents. About 75% of classroom activities rely on the visual system.
In our throwback post, we learned that visual perception is the total process responsible for receiving and interpreting what we see. It involves visual-receptive (how our eyes move and focus on an object) and visual-cognitive components (how we interpret visual information).
When your child’s visual processing is compromised, we’re quick to assume that they need glasses/contacts or other visual aids. Although that may be the case, other factors can play a role as to why they’re seeing things differently.
Crack in the (Sensory) Foundation
The way we visually process our environment is influenced by our other sensory systems, specifically those responsible for touch (tactile), body awareness (proprioception), and movement (vestibular). Together, these three systems provide the physical awareness necessary to safely participate in activities.
However, if one of these brainstem sensations is faulty, our visual perception will have limited knowledge in what they are seeing. For example, little ones investigate new things through haptic perception (the intentional physical touch and manipulation of objects). Through this hands-on interaction, they gather and store information of an item’s physical properties (weight, texture, shape, size, etc.) which can later be used to identify it through sight alone. If a child never interacted with that object (or anything similar), how would they know anything about it?This would make skills like visual discrimination or visualizations hard to do.
Similarly, if your child has had limited experiences moving freely in their environment, it might be difficult for them to appropriately gauge distances or speed of objects visually.
Also, if your kid has difficulties with self-regulation (shifting arousal level to meet the demands of a task or situation) at school, their visual attention and memory may be non-existent since their primary focus is staying on task to avoid a reprimand from the teacher.
Head on a Swivel
Head and neck control is one of the first accomplishments to be achieved when your baby is doing tummy time, and for good reason. To see successfully, you need to maintain a stable, upright neck to allow your head to comfortably rotate in any direction you wish to look towards. Think of it like a camera on a tripod. You need a stable base to capture a flawless detailed image. If not, that photo is a blur. Same principles apply here. If neck stability is an issue, visual information may be skewed or inaccurate, affecting your child’s ability to read efficiently or write legibly.
Visual perception can also be affected by your child’s own visual sensory sensitivities. Lighting, although necessary for the eyes to do their job, can be overstimulating and distracting to attend to a task (those darn fluorescent bulbs). Conversely, the lights may be too dim which can cause eye strain and fatigue. Bold colors, busy patterns, and too much clutter can send the visual system in overload, trying to decipher between important and irrelevant information. However, too static an environment can under stimulate your kid, especially young ones.
The visual system is complex, not fully maturing until 6-7 years of age. Around this time, the prefrontal cortex (responsible for our executive functions) is coming into its own. So, it’s not surprising that visual perception and executive skills go hand in hand (and why academic difficulties are picked up around this time).
About 40% of the human brain is involved with visual perception. Recent studies show that visual processing depends on the integrity of the other regions of the brain, including the frontal lobe which is associated with visual attention. But if there are difficulties in working memory, self-control, or flexible thinking, it can affect your child’s learning and ultimately their self-confidence. For instance, if you are constantly told that you’re spelling your name wrong or scolded for not finishing a task in a timely manner compared to your peers, you start doubting yourself and what you’re capable of.
Let’s Address It
How can you help your kiddo? Here’s some suggestions.
Yes, these suggestions sound very familiar from our other development posts, but basic activities can exercise all of our senses and help kids sharpen their sensory perception.
Fix the Foundation. If you notice your child has sensory difficulties that could be affecting their visual perception, address it. The playground or going outside is a simple way to help them tackle touching different textures, challenge their body awareness, handle imposed movement, and address arousal level. Similar to how you feel better once you’ve done a workout.
When in Prone. To gain some neck strength and stability, have your child do some activities while lying on their tummy, resting on their elbows. That could be while reading, writing, or doing simple yoga stretches like cobra or sphinx poses.
Be Mindful of the Environment. If your child becomes agitated or distracted when completing activities, the type of lighting or the presence of glares may be the culprit. Consider putting shades on windows or adjust computer screens to reduce glare. Limit visual clutter by putting toys/games/objects back in their place, only pulling out what is needed. Also, take visual breaks if your kid is in front of a screen or doing online learning. We don’t blink as much when we’re watching screens, causing the eyes to dehydrate and fatigue.
Visual Cognitive Activities. There’s a plethora of workbooks and apps that address visual perceptual skills. You can also try these to help your child:
- Visual Discrimination – sorting objects, matching, spot the difference
- Visual Memory – memory card game, what’s missing game
- Visual Spatial Relations – looking at google maps, board games, telling time on a clock
- Form Constancy – find objects that are the same shape, find the same letter/number
- Sequential Memory – spelling words, connect the dots
- Visual Figure-Ground – hidden picture games, finding an object in a drawer/pantry
- Visual Closure – interlocking puzzles, complete the other half of a picture
Quick recap: If your kid is showing signs of decreased visual perception, or they simply aren’t noticing visual cues or details, don’t jump right to visual impairment. Assess your environment and see if there could be other factors affecting the situation.
What is Visual Perception? Research on Learning Styles (bonnieterrylearning.com)
Brain: Visual perception | Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development (child-encyclopedia.com)
Mauro, T. (2006). The Everything Parent’s Guide to Sensory Integration Disorder. Avon, MA: Adams Media.