Vision skills allow us to make sense of our bodies – how they work alone and how they work within the world around us.
Vision takes the lead in action-pro-action-and-reaction and is a cognitive skill developed in the brain. In fact, our eyes are actually extensions of our brain. Dr. David Hubel, and his collaborator, Dr. Torsten Wiesel, dedicated their research to discovering the ways that the brain processes information. This journey lead to Hubel’s writing that “The retina is part of the brain, having been sequestered from it early in development but having kept its connections with the brain proper through a bundle of fibers – the optic nerve.” He hails the retina’s role in Visual Information Processing as one that “by translating light into nerve signals, it begins the job of extracting from the environment what is useful and ignoring what is redundant. No human inventions, including computer-assisted cameras, can begin to rival the eye.” And so, as we begin our discussion on visual information processing, we will soon discover for ourselves the profound effect that the work and writings of Dr. David Hubel and his coworkers had on our realization and understanding of the key role that vision plays in learning.
The skills we use to process visual information are often labeled as “Visual Perceptual Skills.” This complex set of cognitive skills allows us to gather information and integrate it with our other senses. This set includes:
· Visual Attention
· Visual Discrimination
· Position in Space
· Visual Spatial Relations
· Visual Memory
· Visual Sequential Memory
· Visual Form Constancy
· Visual Closure
· Figure Ground
Learning takes place when an experience is registered as
(1) a new one or one that has been dealt with previously,
(2) a positive or negative interaction,
(3) one that is desirable to repeat,
(4) one that needs adaptation in order to be effective or pleasurable, and/or
(5) one that can be recalled, reproduced, or adapted for use again in the future.
Learning requires the ability to gather information, manipulate it, store it, and recall it automatically. The process of visual perception, when it is efficient, provides us with the platform for doing just that. As we discuss each of the 9 Visual Perceptual Skills, we will begin to develop our understanding of the significance of vision’s role in learning.
In this article, we will begin our journey of discovery with the first two skills:
visual attention and visual discrimination.
1. Visual Attention is “important for selecting and inhibiting visual information over space and over time. It is a diverse et of operations that interact with other perceptual, motor, and cognitive systems. As our eyes perceive the endless stream of information coming from our bodies and the environment, the brain operates a filter that helps us to focus on what is immediately important. Visual attention is necessary for handwriting and the development of other higher-level visual perceptual skills and it needs to begin its development early in a child’s visual processing journey.
(1) Frequent fidgeting and/or cannot remain seated.
(2) Often runs or climbs excessively or appears restless.
(3) Appears not to be listening or fails to follow through with instructions.
(4) Is easily distracted by external stimuli such as other children talking in the back of the room.
(5) Avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort, such as handwriting or reading.
(1) Blowing through a straw encourages the eyes to pull together and work more effectively at close range. The Cotton Ball Game is one that has the child blow through a straw to move a cotton ball toward
a target, with or without visual guidance, such as masking tape from start to finish lines. Whistles and blowing bubbles have the same effect and can include gross motor movement in their use, such as running to pop the bubble or marching to the whistle’s tune.
(2) Balloon toss or tennis are excellent games to train the eyes to focus on a moving target. Be sure to remind the child to try and maintain eye contact with the balloon as it travels away from and back toward him.
(3) “I Spy,” hidden pictures, and memory games encourage the use of scanning and sustained focusing skills in close work tasks. It is important to allow a struggling child to use his finger to search for hidden objects or to use his verbal skills to remember what he has seen in memory games. As he becomes more proficient at the task, have him ease away from the “helping strategies.”
2. Visual Discrimination is our ability to recognize the subtle differences and similarities between two visually represented forms in order to determine if they match or belong to a different group of forms. This skill provides us with the perception of shape, size, and form for learning subjects such as handwriting and reading.
a. Children who have difficulty with visual discrimination will often exhibit these signs:
(1) Difficulty matching items of clothing such as socks or shoes.
(2) Determining the difference between sizes of objects during sorting activities or the sizes of letters and numbers during handwriting tasks.
(3) Difficulty detecting errors in handwritten work, such as letter reversals.
(4) Difficulty matching pictures to verbal instructions, during yoga practice for example.
(5) Frequently placing objects in the inappropriate place, such as the wrong cubby in school even though each is clearly marked with a name.
(1) Sorting games that involve activities of daily living, such as laundry or silverware from the dishwasher, will add a touch of “reality” to the game and enhance the likelihood for building memory and carryover to other educational activities, such as handwriting.
(2) Puzzles provide an excellent opportunity for a child to recognize differences (size, flat sides) and to use his visual skills as he manipulates them to match the correct “holes and spaces.”
(3) Legos, Lincoln Logs, or tangrams provide visual and tactile activities using a picture to copy and shapes to manipulate in order to reproduce the picture into a 2- or 3-D object.
As you can “see” from this introduction to the visual perceptual skill set, it covers quite a bit of how we learn, as it starts right out with our ability to pay attention to the task and to details. The eye is amazing, with the retina actually being a part of the brain.
Please join us next week as we continue to explore the “rest of the visual perceptual skills story” with Position in Space and Visual Spatial Relations! Thanks for reading!
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. In her current book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, she shares a comprehensive guide and consistent tool for addressing handwriting development needs. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.
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