Figure-Ground Perception

“Mum, I can’t find my sneakers!”
How often have we heard this, even though they are under the children’s noses!  Besides inattention, it could be the result of your child having difficulty distinguishing the foreground (sneakers in this example), or “figure” from the background (the other shoes in the closet), the “background”.   

Learning to visually isolate one shape from a group of shapes will help your child to learn to concentrate and focus his attention on one task at a time. This skill is essential in many reading and mathematical activities. Marianne Frostig, when commenting on her Developmental Test for Visual Perception stated that children who find it difficult to recognise words often seem to have disturbances in figure-ground perception. 

What is Figure-ground perception?   

Perception is what goes on in our internal mental world: how we organise and give meaning to raw data which we receive from the outside world through our senses.
Auditory figure-ground perception is the ability to hear the voice of one speaker over the   background noises (music, other conversations, road noises).
Visual figure-ground perception is an inborn tendency which allows us to distinguish objects from a background.

In this picture we see the letter “b”, but in reality it is a series of connected coloured squares. Children with figure-ground perception difficulties may struggle to see the "b" amongst the other squares on the background.
Babies are born with basic organising tendencies, eg the ability to distinguish an object from a larger background. Think of holding an object in front of a baby. Because the baby is able to distinguish the object from the background, it reaches out to the object. The baby was not taught this, but  does so automatically as a way of exploring and interacting with the world around it.

To get a better idea of visual figure-ground perception, try the following exercise: 

The top rectangle contains a  6-sided figure. Which of the figures in the bottom row also contain a similar 6-sided figure?


Yes, they all contain the 6-sided figure. You may have to look very closely at some of the figures, but as you do you'll be aware that you are engaged in a fairly rigorous figure-ground task, deleting from your attention the lines that may not be significant in order to create the figure you seek.

A simpler example for younger children is one in which they have to find hidden items in a picture like the one below. Can you find a pickle, a mug, a strawberry, girls face, pencil, bottle, bucket and the letter “V”.  

A larger, printable version of this picture is available here.

Children with figure-ground weakness may have difficulties learning when there are too many words or images on a page. They can find it difficult keeping their place when reading and scanning from one word to the next in a smooth way will be challenging. Other difficult tasks could be finding a word in a dictionary, map-reading or seemingly simple tasks like completing mazes (drawing between boundaries) or dot-to dot pictures (joining one dot to the next without becoming confused by the other dots/numbers). Copying could be difficult as they are prone to loosing their place or omitting sections of work. Understanding pictures could be difficult because they struggle to differentiate the outlines from the background.  

Children who are easily distracted are often unable to focus on one object while ignoring or blocking out the background. By minimising background distractions (noise, too much colour or detail etc), children with attention span difficulties often find it easier to concentrate and learn.

As with all aspects of perception, figure-ground perception can be further developed with practice.

Practical ideas to improve figure-ground perception:

  • When reading, use a book marker below the sentence that is being read.

  • Play “I spy” games.

  • Carry out specific instructions that involve looking for and fetching specific things (find the red pencil in the box; look for a picture of a flower on this page; design a treasure hunt).

  • Sort objects according to shape, size, colour, thickness etc. Smile Education’s Young Designer game is ideal for this.

  • Identify objects in pictures with a lot of detail (as in the picture above)

  • Use tracing paper to trace patterns or complete mazes, do dot-to-dot or spot-the-difference pictures.

  • Write a sentence without spacing between the words. Help the child to find the words by placing the spaces correctly.

  • Word searches

  • Find words in a dictionary.

Free figure-ground worksheets available here. More worksheets will be added to the website over the next few weeks. Please keep looking.  

I also highly recommend Bridging with a Smile workbook which contains a large variety of visual perceptual activities. 



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