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Early learning: Figure Ground Development in baby's and toddlers

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Publish date: 2018-09-03

What do you spot in this image? One of the prominent Visual Perceptual Skills that your learners need for reading and writing is Figure Ground Perception (FG).   This blog article tackles what FG really entails and why it is so important to stimulate the development of this skill as pre-school teachers in the very young.

Figure Ground Perception underpins ALL the other Visual Perceptual (VP) Skills and is one of the first to develop in the young baby.  It refers to the ability to distinguish the foreground from the background and make sense of it. It is more than being able to focus and one could describe it as being able to focus with understanding.  The formal definition is that FG is the ability identify an object against a background and attach meaning to it.

Its development starts from the day the baby can focus on an object and develops as a skill when baby can focus and then shifts her focus.  The face of the caregivers, parents and familiar objects are the first to be focussed on and understood.  When dealing with the very young baby up to three months it is therefore important that we will provide objects the baby can look at.  The familiar and popular cot mobile is a good example of how we can ensure baby starts developing the skill of FG.

The next big milestone in the development of FG comes when the baby can sit and look around.  The baby is now able to gaze at the toys around him/ her and reach out to grab one.  In this action we see the important role of FG to enable the baby to identify the object of desire and then action the movement to reach for it.  The partnership between looking at and reaching (eye-hand coordination) has begun.   Here the role of the caregiver/ educator would include providing a few (three to four) choices of toys to the baby.  A very cluttered and messy play area would be confusing to the baby and will not contribute to effective FG development.

When baby start crawling and again when baby starts walking, we see another huge development taking place with FG.  The baby now has to judge if objects are in her way and find a way around / over/ under the object.  It is amazing to watch how right at the beginning of the crawling process, the baby still does not have the FG to get it right and will often crawl into an object, or disregard the distance between herself and for instance the floor when placed on a raised surface.  Because baby moves closer and further away from objects that are stationery while crawling, FG as a skill develops and the baby builds a memory bank of meaningful relationships between herself (himself) and objects.  This beginning of understanding of space in turn forms a building block for the development of other visual perceptual skills like Spatial Awareness.

In the 2 to 3-year-old group it is important to provide activities where FG can be practised. This happens when you ask the learners to sort or group similar items.  The learner looks at the selection, focuses on one and selects an item.  Some two-year olds need to start with just a few items to select from but by age three they should be able to find a red object amongst similar objects in different colours.  As FG improves, so will their willingness and ability to “find” and they start enjoying the challenge to help with tidying up, looking for specific items that need putting away.

At age 3 to 4 the learner can remember three listed items and a favourite game is to go outside and look for (or touch in sequence) the sandpit, the lorry and the spade.  This game combines the aspect of sequential auditory memory (recalling a list of objects in order) with the visual perceptual skill of FG.  Watch out for those learners who either cannot find the objects on the playground; they might have difficulty with their FG perception.

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