Figure-Ground Perception

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Figure ground perception activities and helpful information on this visual perceptual skill

Did you know that having good figure-ground perception can help your child at home and at school? Many childhood games and activities, not to mention some life skills, need this visual perceptual skill!

Click on the quick links below to get answers to your questions and lots of great activity ideas!

These visual perception activities are intended to encourage your child's normal visual perceptual development.
If you suspect your child has visual perceptual delays, please seek a professional opinion.

What Is Figure-Ground Perception?
(And Why Do We Need It?)

Figure-ground perception is the ability to focus on one specific piece of information in a busy background.

Visual figure-ground is the ability to see an object in a busy background; while auditory figure-ground helps us to pick out a voice or sound from a noisy environment.

At home, having good visual figure-ground skills can help you to...

  • find your favorite socks in a messy drawer
  • find the ketchup bottle in the pantry
  • find a specific toy in the toy-box
  • find a favorite t-shirt in the cupboard
  • find a dropped item if it fell onto a similar colored background (eg a green button on the grass)

(Does anyone else think that moms have super-hero abilities in this area?! LOL)

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At School, A Child With Poor Figure-Ground Perception May:

  • struggle to find information on a busy blackboard
  • lose his/her place when copying work from the board
  • lose his/her place on the page while reading.
  • have poor dictionary skills
  • struggle with map work
  • struggle to find personal items in a cluttered place


Because this skill is so important, we need to make sure we give our kids lots of opportunities to build their skills. Toddlers and preschoolers need lots of hands-on activities and games, so keep the worksheets until they are a bit older.

Many activities that work on visual discrimination skills, can also be used to improve visual figure-ground skills. So there is a bit of an overlap between some activities on my visual discrimination page and here. But your child won't mind :-)

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Toddler Figure-Ground Activities

These are fun for very young children, or for those whose figure-ground perception is really poor.

Find Your Laundry

Give your child a pile of socks and ask them to find their own socks.

Or dump the laundry basket on the floor and ask them to find their own clothes in the pile!

This will help your child to spot something important in a busy background.

Find your own socks!

Sort Cereal or Pasta

Give your child a bowl of mixed pasta shapes or a bowl of colorful cereal such as Cheerios or Froot Loops.

Ask your child to pick out one specific shape of pasta or color of cereal. He/she will then need to spot that shape or color in the busy background.

Please supervise your child to prevent choking.

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"Active Eyes" Activities

Learning to pay attention to detail and to look for information is a skill that children need to learn.

When everything is presented to us visually on a screen, we can get lazy about looking for things in the "real world", so I like to encourage parents to play what I call "Active Eyes" activities with their kids.

When you are out and about, play the I spy with my little eye” game. Kids of all ages can play this (my teens still love outwitting each other with really odd-ball items!). For younger kids who don't yet know their letter names, use the phonetic letter sound, for example  "mm" instead of "em" for "M".

Here are two more "Active Eyes" activities that you can try:

Take an "Active Eyes" Walk

If you have the opportunity to walk in your neighborhood or in nature, use the opportunity to look for specific items.

If you spot something interesting, don't point it out to your child! Rather ask them to try and find the ladybug on the plant, or the red flower in the garden, or whatever you have spotted.

Older kids can look for specific numbers and letters in the neighborhood.


Looking for the number "5" on a neighborhood walk

Take an "Active Eyes" Pretend Shopping Trip

Give your child a shopping flyer and ask them to find specific items for your shopping list, real or imaginary.

Kids who know their numbers could point out specific numbers eg a 4 or a 49. 

In my country, South Africa, we still get shopping flyers at our local stores, or with our newspapers. If you don't, then try and do this with a regular newspaper or magazine, asking your child to find a specific item on a page.

Use your Active Eyes to "shop"

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Using Games And Puzzles

1) Matching Cards

Mix up a variety of picture cards and ask your child to find a specific picture.

Increase the figure-ground demand by adding more cards to the “pool” so your child has to find the card in a busier background.

Find a specific picture in a mix of cards

2) Jigsaw Puzzles

When doing a jigsaw puzzle, encourage your child to look for the small details.

For example, pick up a piece, point out a specific color/shape/object on the piece, and ask your child to find a piece that has the same color/the rest of the object on it.

Obviously, start with puzzles with fewer pieces!

Ask your child to do a puzzle with you

If your child struggles with the concept of puzzles, read my article on teaching puzzles.


3) Play Games Like "Spot It!"

The European version of Spot It! is called Dobble.

These are fast-paced games that whole families can play, but if you are using them to help a child who has poor figure-ground perception, then have them work through the cards at their own pace, with your guidance to get the hang of finding the items. They should soon be confident enough to play with you and then others.

BusyTown and the "I Spy Eagle Eye" brand of games are also great games to build figure-ground perception skills.

These are readily available in many toy departments, but I have looked them out on Amazon for your convenience. These are my affiliate links to these products - I will earn a small commission if you purchase something through my links, which helps to support my free website. However, you are under no obligation to purchase anything!

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Using "Seek-and-Find" Type Books

Your child will need lots of encouragement if they usually avoid this type of book – encourage your child to pay attention to detail, and show them how to systematically work through the page.

How to help your child use a seek-and-find book:

Usually, I let the child scan the page first, and if they do not find the object, I will work with them systematically.


You can ask your child to look in specific areas of the picture – "Have you looked in the house?", "How about the tree?"

In this way, you can systematically cover all the main areas of the page.

Looking in specific areas

Or you can show your child how to move a finger across the page and have the eyes follow the finger.

Work from left to right, gradually moving down the page.

Scanning the page systematically

Many libraries and second hand book stores stock a range of "Where's Waldo?", "I Spy" and "Usborne Puzzle Books".

You can also get newer versions, and I have looked them out on Amazon for your convenience. These are my affiliate links to these products - I will earn a small commission if you purchase something through my links, which helps to support my free website. However, you are under no obligation to purchase anything!

Seek & Find Books for Younger Kids

Seek & Find Books for Older Kids

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Using Activity Books

If your child has an activity book at home, the chances are good that there are some activity pages that work on figure-ground perception. 

Look out for pages that present spot-the-difference, mazes, hidden pictures, word-searches and color-by-number activities like the ones shown below. These are all helpful in building visual figure-ground skills.

Overlapping lines
Mazes
Spot the differences

However, kids with poor figure-ground perception often don’t know where to begin to do these activities as the visual information is overwhelming.

If your child usually avoids these pages, or tends to make a mess of them, sit with your child and help them to make sense of the page.

You may need to help them develop some strategies  - for example, using their finger to help them scan a spot-the-difference maze, using their finger to trace the maze paths to find the correct one before tracing it with a crayon.

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Using Worksheets

Although I prefer hands-on activities, there is sometimes a place for using visual perception worksheets to help consolidate kids' skills.

If you are looking for some printable resources to help develop your child's visual figure-ground skills, then check out these lovely ones. I have used them over and over in occupational therapy activities as well as at home with my own kids when they were younger.

Each download is packed with worksheets to work on figure-ground perception.


I hope you found this information useful! Children with poor figure ground skills may also struggle with other visual perceptual skills as well. So take a look at my other pages to be inspired with more activity ideas.

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