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How Do Fine-Motor Activities Develop Visual Perception in Special Needs Students?

written by: Barbara Smith • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/5/2012

As young children manipulate toys they develop visual perceptual skills to discriminate shapes, sizes and how objects relate to one another in space. These early visual perceptual skills will later help them discriminate letters- the first steps toward reading and writing.

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    What Is Visual Perception?

    You may be wondering- How do fine-motor activities develop visual perception in special needs students? Visual Perception is the brain’s interpretation of what is seen. This enables children to identify objects, discriminate colors, sizes and shapes and learn to read and write. Young children learn these skills by manipulating objects and this learning begins during the first six months of life as babies shake toys, grab their toes and reach out to pop bubbles. These early movements teach babies about spatial relationships.

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    Playing With Toys Teaches Spatial Relationships

    “Spatial relationships" refers to how objects relate to one another and the space around them. Developing the visual perceptual skills to interpret spatial relationships is necessary in order to fit shapes into puzzles, move pawns on a game board and discriminate one letter from another.

    Between six and twelve months of age babies spend a lot of time learning about how objects such as cups, blocks or keys relate to one another and the space around them as they

    • Bang them together
    • Bang them on the table and
    • Throw them to see where they go

    Between one and two years of age toddlers refine their understanding of objects, space, shape and size in order to

    • Balance one block on top of another
    • Fit a smaller cup inside a larger one
    • Place round, square and triangle shapes inside matching openings

    Manipulating these objects teaches the young child that objects vary in size, length and shape. These concepts will eventually help the older child recognize that letters Q and C are round, upper case letters are larger than lower case letters and that letters L, E and T are made up of long and short lines. Children with special needs continue to learn about these spatial relationships for many years as they build log cabins and model airplanes.

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    Fine-Motor Activities Teach Directionality

    Children between three and five years of age love arts and crafts that involve folding, gluing and taping and manipulating small objects such as beads and pegs. These activities not only develop eye-hand coordination, but teach directionality concepts. “Directionality" is another visual perceptual skill necessary to read and write. The brain interprets visual information to discriminate spatial positions such as right and left, up and down and front and back. Children learn these concepts as they

    • Push cookie cutters down into the dough and build towers that go up toward the sky
    • Draw faces with eyes at the top and the mouth at the bottom
    • Match puzzle pieces in a board and shoes to the correct feet

    Developing directionality helps children learn that letters are formed in the left to right and top to bottom directions and that in the west we read and turn pages in a book from left to right. A child needs good directionality skills to discriminate letters such as b and d that differ according to whether the circle is on the right or left of the line.

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    Adapting Fine-Motor Activities to Teach Visual Perceptual Skills

    Large Lacing Shapes Many young children prefer running around, ball games, dress up play and looking at pictures to using manipulation toys such as lacing boards. However, these children should be encouraged to engage in daily fine-motor activities for short amounts of time. The following home-made activities can be adapted to promote success for students with special needs:

    • Lacing boards with extra large holes (cut out of cardboard or plastic).
    • Lacing shapes cut out of cardboard or plastic (instead of beads). Cut extra large holes out of the center and use cord instead of flimsy string (see photo).
    • Stacking larger boxes that have sand, bells or other auditory objects inside.
    • Adapted Shape Sorter Shape sorters with only one or two shape openings such as a square shape to push blocks through or a slit to insert cards (see photo).

    Fine-motor activities that are adapted to be challenging enough to motivate, but not too difficult to discourage, help young children develop the visual perceptual skills needed to read and write.

    Teachers and therapists can help parents choose the right toys to meet their children’s learning needs.

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