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Practical Ideas to Stimulate Figure - Ground Skills - September 2009

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Practical Ideas to Stimulate Figure, Ground Skills

By: Melanie Lambert OTR/L

I can't find it!

“I can't find it!” the child cries in frustration.
“Look carefully. It is right under your nose.” you respond.

This scenario may sound familiar if you have ever worked with a child who has difficulties with Figure Ground perception. Our environment constantly bombards us with a wealth of visual information. The ability to screen out irrelevant visual material in order to concentrate on the important stimulus is a key skill for any child to remain attentive and organized within the classroom situation. A simple instruction such as “Find the teddy bear in the toy box” or “Look for a picture of a house in your book” can be quite overwhelming for a child who struggles with this aspect of visual perception.

Children with Figure Ground weaknesses may have difficulty learning when there are too many words or images on the the pages they must look at. They may seem inattentive and unable to keep their place when reading or completing number work. Scanning from one word to the next in a smooth manner will be challenging. Difficulties may also be experienced in drawing a straight line between boundaries, completing a maze, looking up places on a map or looking up words in a dictionary. They may be slow in copying from the board, constantly loose their place or omit certain sections. Understanding pictures may be confusing because they can't differentiate the outlines from the background.

Here are some practical ideas to help stimulate the development of Figure Ground skills as well as tips that can be used in the classroom.

Tips for the classroom:

  1. Reduce visual stimuli:
    • Place the child with severe Figure Ground problems in the front row or in a designated work area with minimal visual distractions. If he is sitting at the back of the classroom, he may be distracted by the amount of stimuli he sees.
    • Encourage the child to keep a tidy and uncluttered desk.
    • Avoid too much detail on classroom walls. Use only relevant pictures or aids.
    • When reading, use a book marker below the sentence that is being read.
    • Minimize the information presented on worksheets and enlarge worksheets to ease focus demands.
    • Remove irrelevant information from the board if child is copying off it. Limit the amount of copying from the board.
    • Use a cut out window to show one problem/question at a time.
  2. Increase visual interest in the relevant material:
    • When projecting work on the white board, use different colors for each line, use large print and have points clearly numbered.
    • Underline sentences in different colors when copying work.
    • Use highlighter pens to emphasize important facts.
    • Highlight the outlines of pictures that need to be colored in or cut out.
    • Use different colors in map work to indicate various cities or towns instead of symbols.
    • Use different colors to indicate different mathematical symbols.
  3. Reinforce with verbalization and movement:
    • Give the child spatial cues when looking for information, for example, “Find the picture with the house at the top right hand side of the page.”
  4. Practice changing attention from one figure to another.

You will find a list of activity ideas to stimulate the development of this skill below. The activities have been graded from Kinaesthetic to 3D to 2D and lastly school related worksheets. They should be presented to the child in this order, as this is the way a child's brain develops.

Kinaesthetic (experiencing with own body)
  • I spy games
  • Ask the child to find an object in his surroundings, for example, a bird in a tree
  • Find various categories of objects in the room, for example, all the round objects or all the red objects
  • Carry out specific instructions that involve looking for and fetching things, for example, a treasure hunt

  • Sort objects according to color, shape or use.
  • Choose the appropriate pieces in a construction game to build a particular designated design
  • Lotto games – match the cards to the pictures on the game board
  • Bingo (make with objects, shapes or letters as well as conventional numbers)

  • Identify objects in pictures with lots of detail.
  • Where is Wally?/Where is Waldo? books
  • Retrace scribble patterns
  • Trace around a particular shape in a jumbled picture (shapes overlap each other)
  • Worksheets ideas
    • Mazes
    • Mosaic pictures (color by number or letter code)
    • Dot to dot pictures
    • Spot the difference

School related worksheets ideas
These ideas have been graded from easy to more difficult. Have the child start without a time limit and grade so that the child has to work against time they have started to master the skill.

  1. Look for letters or numbers in a written piece (magazine or newspaper).
  2. Word searches with words given.
  3. Word searches without words given.
  4. Looking for sight words in a written piece (magazine or newspaper).
  5. Write a sentence without any spacing. Have the child find the words by putting in the correct spacing.
  6. Finding telephone numbers in a directory.
  7. Finding words in a dictionary.

For more worksheet ideas, log onto and select the Figure Ground section of the worksheet database.

This Month's Featured Author: Melanie Lambert

Melanie Lambert, an Occupational Therapist, is the brainchild and creator of Visual Learning For Life and its Worksheet Database. She is currently based in London and works part time in a pediatric private practice. The Worksheet Database continues to grow and Melanie is successfully developing and maximising the contents of the site to give users a complete toolkit in the pursuit of improving and enhancing children's visual perception.

Visual Learning for Life provides parents, teachers and professionals with a unique and easily accessible tool to help empower children who struggle with reading, spelling, handwriting and maths due to visual perceptual problems. Our website offers an extensive database of over 1200 worksheets.

Please support our contributing authors and visit Visual Learning for Life

Tags: September 2009 Newsletter OT Article