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Figure-Ground Perception: Everything You Need To Know

Common school activities — including fun things like games and story time — can be problematic for children who struggle with visual processing difficulties. Figure-ground perception is an essential aspect of visual processing that allows children to understand what they see — a critical brain function that affects everything from learning to read to solving puzzles.

What Is Figure-Ground Perception?

Figure-ground perception is the ability to differentiate an object from its background.
The “figure” is the object of focus, and the “ground” is the background. For example, when we see black text on a white page, we focus on the text (the figure) rather than the paper’s texture.1 

Difficulty with visual figure-ground perception can be misinterpreted as trouble seeing. While yearly eye exams are essential for children, the issue here is not vision but perception. Perception of figure and ground takes place in the brain, making sense of what the eye sees.2 Difficulty with this skill does not imply a lack of intelligence, but it will hinder learning if there is no intervention.3 The challenge of differentiating between figure and ground qualifies as one of the visual processing disorders.

The Role of Figure-Ground Perception in Learning

Figure-ground perception is a cognitive function.4 The classic example of this skill in action is an image of two black faces in profile facing each other against a white field. Seeing the white vase or the black faces is an example of using this cognitive function. Switching between the two reverses the visual figure and ground in your mind. But how does this affect learning?

Poor visual figure-ground perception makes it difficult to find specific text on a page or to distinguish between letters with a similar appearance, like lowercase n, r, and m, or a, d, g, and q.5 Children who struggle with figure-ground perception often have trouble learning to read, particularly as their books feature an increasing number of words on each page. It’s also hard for them to scan text for relevant information. 

Another key concern with poor figure-ground perception is that it makes it difficult to copy information from the blackboard, a worksheet, or a book.6 This is a critical learning strategy that works various cognitive functions.7 So, not only is learning to read more challenging, but learning to write is impaired, too. Fortunately, there are ways to strengthen this cognitive skill once you realize there is a problem.

Identifying Challenges in Figure-Ground Perception

If your child exhibits any of the following symptoms, he or she could have trouble with figure-ground perception:
  • Your child has trouble concentrating on books with small print and/or many words per page.
  • Your child has trouble copying notes from the board or worksheet
  • Your child struggles with "I Spy" and "Hidden Pictures" games.
  • Your child has trouble picking out details in words or images.
  • Your child has trouble scanning for information in text.
  • Your child mixes up similar-looking words (like mom and man).
  • Your child sometimes writes numbers or letters in reverse.
  • Your child struggles with reading comprehension.
  • Your child has trouble telling time.
  • Your child struggles with spelling words.8
Children with figure-ground perception challenges may also find it difficult to assemble puzzles or enjoy artwork with lots of detail. If you suspect a problem, talk to your child’s teacher to gain more insight into how your child is doing in class. The teacher should be able to refer you to a specialist at your school for testing or more information if you think additional help is required.

Strategies to Enhance Figure-Ground Perception

Visual figure-ground perception is a cognitive function that can be strengthened through practice. You can support your child in practicing these skills by making it fun. Try looking at "Where’s Waldo" or "I Spy" books to encourage your child to pick small images out of a crowded field. Kids enjoy doing things with their parents, so see what objects you can find, too. Online games and puzzles that center around finding hidden objects are also a fun way to practice this skill. 

You can also put together jigsaw puzzles together. To get the most out of this activity, encourage your child to refer to the picture on the box and point out the section they think a puzzle piece belongs to. 

For help building visual figure-ground skills with text, challenge your child to pick out a given word on the page of a book. You can also make your own worksheets by typing a line of letters but changing just one of them. For example: ggggggdgggggggggggg
To complete the worksheet, have your child circle or highlight the letter that is not like the others to practice visual-ground perception. 
You can also try hiding a small object in the house — in plain sight — and challenging your child to find its new location each day after school. 
Activities to strengthen figure-ground perception can involve the whole family. When you’re outdoors, have everyone play the “I spy with my little eye” game. If a child is too young to know the alphabet, you can use phonetics, like “I spy something beginning with the ‘rrr’ sound” instead of calling it the letter R. 
Additionally, try exploring various activities for improving visual motor skills, like swing toss, flashlight tag, and jumping games. 

The Brain Balance Approach to Improving Visual Processing Skills

Parents experience anxiety over every challenge their child faces. But the good news is that figure-ground perception, like many cognitive functions, can be improved with effort and the proper guidance. The Brain Balance Program is designed to offer a drug-free, integrated approach that brings parents and kids together to achieve a common goal of improving a child’s processing and learning ability, leading to a more successful academic and personal life.

Contact us today to schedule an assessment. You can also view the research and results of the program on the website.

1 https://study.com/learn/lesson/figure-ground-perception-relationship-examples.html
2 https://www.optometrists.org/vision-therapy/guide-vision-and-learning-difficulties/guide-to-visual-information-processing/visual-figure-ground/
3 https://www.optometrists.org/vision-therapy/guide-vision-and-learning-difficulties/guide-to-visual-information-processing/visual-figure-ground/
4 https://study.com/learn/lesson/figure-ground-perception-relationship-examples.html
5 https://www.yourkidsot.com/blog/visual-perceptual-skills-required-for-handwriting
6 https://www.optometrists.org/vision-therapy/guide-vision-and-learning-difficulties/guide-to-visual-information-processing/visual-figure-ground/
7 https://allkindsofminds.org/copying-from-the-board-or-overhead/
8 https://leafcare.co.uk/condition/visual-processing-disorder-vpd/

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