What is Visual Attention?

Visual attention

Visual attention is a hot topic when it comes to learning! There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to being visually attentive, however. Attention to visual information is an area of visual processing that is more than just focusing on a task or leaning activity. Attention and awareness of visual information is a skill necessary for noticing details, adjusting to patterns, reading, and so much more of the giant visual processing umbrella.

Be sure to read our resource on near point copying as visual attention plays a role in copying written work.

Visual attention

Visual Attention

Read on to discover what is visual attention and how this visual skill impacts so much of what we do.

Visual attention is a visual processing skill that allows us to notice and focus on details. Some aspects of visual attention occur automatically and immediately, and others require integration of other visual processing aspects such as visual perceptual work, focused vision, retained attention, visual mindfulness, and more.


What is visual attention?

First, it’s important to recognize where visual attention lies in the visual processing umbrella. Visual processing is an aspect that includes the cognitive components, once visual information is received through oculomotor skills and visual acuity.

Attention of visual information is an area of obtaining visual information and communicating that information with the brain. This collection of information requires several eye mobility skills including: voluntary eye movements, visual fixation, smooth pursuits (or visual tracking) and visual scanning.

Additionally, visual perceptual skills are included in the visual processing skill. These skills allow us to discriminate details and fill in “missing pieces” such as partially obscured portions of the form and to use the “mind’s eye” to visualize those aspects.

About Visual Processing…

For more information on visual processing and the aspects that are a part of visual skills (oculomotor skills, visual perception, visual motor integration, etc.) join us in a free 3-day email series, the Visual Processing Lab, as we discuss each aspect of visual processing with a fun, chemo or bio lab theme!

As a related component, the visual input from a picture story sequence can support needs of individuals to work on visual attention.

Visual Attention includes:

1.) Alertness- Defined as “the quality of being alert”, alertness is that watchful and attentive manner of being ready and responsive to visual information. Visual alertness requires focused vision and keenness to a specific object or area in the visual field.

2.) Selective Attention- The ability of noticing and processing specific information while disregarding other, less relevant information describes selective attention. This ability to discern visual information is needed for attending visually to information.

3.) Surrounding Attention- This aspect of attention refers to the surroundings and position in space. An awareness of our body position and the environment happening around us, including distance impacts attention at large.

4.) Mindful Alertness- The ability to be mindful and aware of visual input with a concentrated effort allows attention needed for participating in a visual task. The continuous alertness in a focused state allows us to attend with intention.

5.) Shared Attention- This aspect of visual attention allows us to shift focus between visual input. This can involve filtering of unnecessary information.

What is visual attention? It's a visual processing skill that allows us to read and maintain our place on a line of words. Visual attention allows us to copy written work and notice details. It allows us to recognize faces and letters or words. Visual attention is an important visual skill that many kids struggle with.Learn more here, as well as other information on visual processing.


Visual Attention and Preattentive Features

If visual memory and attention is depiction of and focusing on specific qualities of a form, then pre-attentive features are basic features of visual information that are automatically noticed by the eyes. These features are easily pulled out of a background or group in a visual display.

Pre-attentive features include:

  • Color
  • Orientation
  • Curvature
  • Size
  • Motion
  • Depth Cues
  • Vernier
  • Lustre
  • Aspects of Shape

Visual Attention and Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy providers address functional skills in their clients. They help to support every day tasks. Visual attention is one of the underlying components that are required in the visual system and plays a key role in supporting visual processing for performance of everyday activities.

There are several types of visual problems:

1. Visual efficiency- This includes eye movements, eye alignment, and eye focusing. These three abilities relate to functional performance. 

Consider these questions related to the attentional mechanisms surrounding visual efficiency:

  • Can you be a good reader if you lose your place constantly while reading, because of poor eye movements?
  • Can you be a good reader if you are seeing double? Wouldn’t you express visual inattention as a result of double vision?
  • Can you be a good reader and learner if the words are moving in and out of focus and as a result you have headaches and eye strain? Wouldn’t these hardships signal the eyes to close one to shutdown, thus losing visual attention to the stimulus of the reading task?
  • Wouldn’t visual efficiency problems impact your ability to think with reasoning and impact comprehension as a result?

Looking at these questions, it’s easy to see the attentional effects that visual efficiency has on maintaining attention to visual stimuli. 

2. Visual Perception- Visual perceptual skills impact academic performance, and visual attention is one of these. These skills work together to allow for functional vision! Visual perception and attention skills enable the cognitive processes.

  • Visual attention
  • Visual memory (which requires attention)
  • Visual discrimination (which visual attention is a key component in order to discriminate between details)
  • Visual closure (in which visual attention is a skill that impacts the mind’s eye in closing a visual image)
  • Spatial attention in written work

3. Visual motor integration- The components of visual motor integration includes the  integrates the perceptual awareness with the motor output, and attentional skills are a main role. Consider:

  • Automaticity of movement
  • Rhythm and timing
  • Body knowledge and control
  • Laterality and directionality
  • Reaction time, which is related to the visual attention on a stimulus
  • Filtering out irrelevant information

All of these areas listed above impact everyday life! 

Visual Attention Tests

There are screening tools that can look at visual attention. These allow the examiner to determine both a focus of attention as well as efficiency and accuracy components. Attention tests won’t give the full picture when used in isolation, but they should be considered as contributing evidence of visual attention challenges. 

Some visual attention tests include:

  1. Basic vision screening- Follow a tongue depressor with a sticker at one end with the eyes, or follow the end of a pen with the eyes. The visual attention screening tool can be used to examine how the eye moves to follow a stimulus across various fields of vision. Another screening task is to ask the participant to scan between tow stimuli held at different sides of their field of vision. Both are also a way to see the attentional capacity to follow a moving target. Included in this screening is a look at pursuits (eye tracking) and saccades (eye scanning). You’ll find more information in our blog posts on visual tracking and visual scanning.
  2. Test of Visual Perceptual Skills (TVPS-4)
  3. Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual Motor Integration, or the Beery VMI
  4. Non-standardized screenings using Parquetry blocks (tangrams), block copying tests, and directionality tasks
  5. Copying materials from a near point and far point

Automaticity in Vision Attention

Automaticity refers to the ability to perform routine activities effortlessly and automatically, or without conscious thought. Every motor task that we do throughout the day required conscious through and effort when it was first learned. 

Once we’ve done a task for long enough, it becomes routine and automatic. We can then do other tasks at the same time. You see this when driving a car, for example. When the task of driving become so routine and ingrained that it is automatic, we can do other things at the same time: think about our day, remember a thought, carry on a conversation, change the radio station, etc.

Driving is an extremely complex task that moves to a conscious routine over time!

However, the issue is that we have a sort of blindness when we do other things even during an automatic task. Have you ever driven home from work, only to not recall the drive because you were thinking about other things?

We as humans also challenge ourselves, often unsafely, by thinking we can do other things while performing an automatic task. Think: texting while driving. The results from this is unfortunate.

What is at play with automaticity is the visual attention skill that moves from a conscious effort to an unconscious effort.

Similarly, this ability is present when we read or write. 

A proficient reader is able to automatically recognize, recall, and reproduce, or write, letters and numbers without conscious effort to identify each letter and number form. 

This attention to detail has become ingrained and automatic. 

When we see challenges with reading proficiency, comprehension, speed, and overall the student who is struggling academically, the automaticity may be missing. The visual scene is incomplete without the automatic integration of visual attention.

Visual Attention Activities

Visual challenges with spatial skills, omitting materials in reading or writing, and other functional considerations can mean working on visual attention can help. Attention tasks like the ones below can support this skill.

The goal for using these visual attention activities is to have comfortable, efficient, and accurate vision at various distances through the function of play and learning. We want to see eye alignment, eye focusing, and eye movements, all operating at an automatic and reflexive level, or without conscious effort.

  • Tangram activities
  • Laterality or directionality activities
  • Letter tracking in word searches
  • Brock string 
  • Bead stringing sequences
  • Directional jumps
  • Mazes
  • Code deciphering activities
  • Dots game
  • Sorting items (beads, buttons, etc.)
  • Hidden pictures activities
  • I Spy
  • What’s missing activities
  • Spot it game
  • Sequencing activities

For the individual with cognitive impairments such as following a stroke or other impairment in which visual inattention is present, some strategies can include:

  • Eye patching
  • Dynamic stimuli (flashing lights)
  • Activities to activate orientation and overall attention
  • Verbal cueing
  • Auditory cuing (bell, finger tapping, snapping, etc.)
  • Tactile cuing to engage the participant to look at the unattended side
  • Mirror therapy

Using an adaptive approach to visual inattention is important to foster functional participation, independence, and safety. These strategies can include:

  • Compensation strategies
  • Incorporate the patient’s awareness 
  • Place necessary items within the patient’s field of vision

How to work on Visual Attention

For more information and specific activities that can address visual attententiveness in fun and meaningful ways, grab the Visual Processing Bundle. In it, you will find 17 digital products, e-books, workbooks, and guides to addressing various aspects of visual processing. The bundle is valued at over $97 dollars for these products, and includes over 235 pages of tools, activities, resources, information, and strategies to address visual processing needs.

For one week, the visual processing bundle is on sale at $29.99. Grab the Visual Processing Bundle HERE.


Wolfe J. Visual attention. In: De Valois KK, editor. Seeing. 2nd ed. San Diego, CA:
Academic Press; 2000. p. 335-386.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Sorting Colors Activities

sorting colors

Sorting colors is a big deal. Young learners in the toddler and preschool stage start out by sorting items such as blocks, plastic animals, coins, or colored items.  Later in child development, sorting colors morphs into sorting silverware, matching socks, organizing drawers, or filing papers to name a few life skills. 

Sorting colors

Sorting by color is an important skill for organizing items into categories to make sense of them, or for ease of locating them later. It is far easier to find a pair of socks in a drawer when they are matched together rather than in a large multi-colored pile. But what developmental skills are required for sorting colors? How can you support this essential skill?

Sorting Colors

First, let’s break down what we mean by sorting colors…

Sorting by color can refer to anything from colored blocks to silverware does not involve being able to name the item. 

Developmentally, a young learner does not need to know their colors in order to sort. They are arranging the items according to their properties. You could sort foreign coins into their respective piles without any idea what they are. By participating in sorting color activities, the young child obtains hands-on practice in several areas of development: 

Hopefully as your learner continues to sort items, they may start recognizing the qualities of each item.  This can include shade, or color, shape, form, number, etc.

Sorting Colors Development

As with many skills, there is a hierarchy of learning to sorting tasks. Young children develop these skills through hands-on play and by playing with toys.

Development of color sorting progresses through these stages:

  1. Grouping items that are exactly the same.  Examples; colored plastic bears, blocks that are all the same size, coins, pompoms
  2. Sorting items that are similar: different brands of socks in similar colors, silverware in varying sizes, towels, a bag of buttons
  3. Sorting items that are similar AND different: sorting items by the color red, that are all different items. Sorting socks that are all different sizes, shapes, weights, and colors. Sorting items by colors that vary (five different shades of red).
  4. Sorting items that have more than one category This stage of development progresses to categorizing objects that can be sorted such as a pile of paper to file. In this case there needs to be one similar quality selected first in order to sort, such as putting all the medical bills together, sorting by date, alphabetizing the papers. The last stage is where we may see challenges impacted by working memory. Those struggling with development of executive functioning skills can be limited in sorting objects in various categories, particularly when a background is busy such as a messy desk, cluttered locker, or home.

Sorting by color is not the easiest way to sort. When there are multiple items that are similar such as 100 colored plastic balls, your learner may not recognize these as different items.  They see balls first, not colors. Try sorting very different items first.  Example: 5 identical buttons, 3 towels, 4 pencils, and 6 spoons.

Color Sorting and Visual Perception

Sorting involves recognizing an item’s properties, but also visual perception.  Through development of these skills, children move from thinking through the sorting of colors to visual efficiency which allows for automaticity in tasks.

Below are some thought processes that integrate color sorting with visual perceptual skills:

  • Figure ground lets the “perceiver” see the items as part to a whole, 
  • Form constancy recognizes that two balls of different colors are still balls. or two shades of red are still red.  
  • Visual discrimination allows the learner to tell difference between items. 
  • Visual memory is the ability to remember what is seen as the eyes are scanning the items

Color Sorting Teaches Mental Flexibility

When teaching sorting, teach mental flexibility.  Sort many different items in many different ways. Sort by, color, size, similarity, quality (4 legged animals), texture, weight, or two qualities.  

Sort the same items two different ways.  First sort the plastic fruit and veggies into color, then sort by type.  Later your learner can sort by larger categories such as fruits versus vegetables.

Color Sorting and Functional Tasks

Why do some people have difficulty organizing and cleaning up? 

Sometimes a large task seems very overwhelming, therefore shut down and refusal tends to occur.  The most effective way to combat this is to teach sorting and categorizing. Go into your child’s messy room and look for the categories.  

  • Books all over the floor
  • Dirty clothes everywhere
  • Papers and trash scattered around
  • 9 dishes and plates
  • 29 stuffed animals
  • 84 hair clips
  • 64 crayons

Now this task seems much more manageable.  I often had to solve this dilemma with my younger daughter.

What other, more complicated ways could she organize this messy room?

  • Sorting the books into genre, size, type, or alphabetizing
  • Organizing the dirty clothes into whites and colors
  • Determining trash versus recyclables
  • Crayons may be part of the “school supplies” category
  • Hair accessories or toys might be a larger category

How would you tackle this chore?  

  • Sort into the larger category first such as books, then sort into their subcategories?  
  • Sort into subcategories such as stuffed animals, games, action figures, puzzles, then group into toys?  

There is no wrong answer depending on how your brain works. Actually the only wrong answer is not getting started or having a meltdown.

When working on basic sorting colors, and feeling it is futile or pointless, think about the bigger picture.  A person who can put their laundry, silverware, and toys away will be more independent than one who can not.

Color Sorting Activities

So, are you wondering about a fun way to build development in this area? We’ve got plenty of ideas.

The OT Toolbox has a great resource for teaching sorting using everyday items.

Amazon has tons of toys and games for sorting!  Don’t limit yourself to store bought items though.  Your kitchen, bathroom, junk drawers, and desk are filled with items that can be grouped and sorted.  

Color sorting activities can include ideas such as:

  • Sorting colored circles (cut out circles from construction paper)
  • Sort different objects by color and drop them into baskets or bowls
  • Use color sorting activities along with a scavenger hunt. This color scavenger hunt is one fun idea.
  • Cut out cardboard shapes and sort by color or shape. This cardboard tangram activity is an easy way to make shapes in different colors.
  • Sort colored markers or crayons
  • Laminate a piece of construction paper and use it as a play mat. Sort different colored craft pom poms or other objects onto the correct mat.
  • Print out color words and sort them along with small objects. The Colors Handwriting Kit has these color words and other printable activities for playing with color.
  • Make dyed pumpkin seeds and sort by color.

This color sorting activity is a powerful fine motor activity and a super easy way to learn and play for toddlers and preschoolers.  We’ve done plenty of activities to work on fine motor skills in kids.  This straw activity is the type that is a huge hit in our house…it’s cheap, easy, and fun!  (a bonus for kids and mom!)  

A handful of straws and a few recycled grated cheese container are all that are needed for tripod grasp, scissor skills, color naming, and sorting.  

SO much learning is happening with color sorting!

Fine Motor Color Sorting Activity with Straws

This color sorting activity is a powerful fine motor activity and a super easy way to learn and play for toddlers and preschoolers.  We’ve done plenty of activities to work on fine motor skills in kids.  This straw activity is the type that is a huge hit in our house…it’s cheap, easy, and fun!  (a bonus for kids and mom!)  A handful of straws and a few recycled grated cheese container are all that are needed for tripod grasp, scissor skills, color naming, and sorting. 

This color sorting activity is great for toddlers and preschools because it helps to develop many of the fine motor skills that they need for function.

I had Baby Girl (age 2 and a half) do this activity and she LOVED it.  Now, many toddlers are exploring textures of small objects with their mouths.  If you have a little one who puts things in their mouth during play, this may not be the activity for you.  That’s ok.  If it doesn’t work right now, put it away and pull it out in a few months. 

Color sorting activity with straws

Always keep a close eye on your little ones during fine motor play and use your judgment with activities that work best for your child.  Many school teachers read our blog and definitely, if there are rules about choking hazards in your classroom, don’t do this one with the 2 or 3 year olds. 

You can adjust this color sorting activity to use other materials besides straws, too. Try using whole straws, pipe cleaners, colored craft sticks, or other objects that are safe for larger groups of Toddlers.  

There are so many fun ways to play and learn with our Occupational Therapy Activities for Toddlers post.

Kids can work on scissor skills by cutting straws into small pieces.

  color sorting activity using straws

We started out with a handful of colored straws.  These are a dollar store purchase and we only used a few of the hundred or so in the pack…starting out cheap…this activity is going well so far!  

Cutting the straws is a neat way to explore the “open-shut” motion of the scissors to cut the straw pieces.  Baby Girl liked the effect of cutting straws.  Flying straw bits= hilarious!  

If you’re not up for chasing bits and pieces of straws around the room or would rather not dodge flying straw pieces as they are cut, do this in a bin or bag.  Much easier on the eyes 😉  

Kids love to work on fine motor skills through play!

 Once our straws were cut into little pieces and ready for playing, I pulled out a few recycled grated cheese containers.  (Recycled container= free…activity going well still!)   We started with just one container out on the table and Baby Girl dropped the straw pieces into the holes. 

Here are more ways to use recycled materials in occupational therapy activities.

Toddlers and preschoolers can work on their tripod grasp by using small pieces of straws and a recycled grated cheese container.

Importance of Color sorting for toddlers and preschoolers

Color sorting activities are a great way to help toddlers and preschoolers develop skills for reading, learning, and math.

Sorting activities develop visual perceptual skills as children use visual discrimination to notice differences between objects.

By repeating the task with multiple repetitions, kids develop skills in visual attention and visual memory. These visual processing skills are necessary for reading and math tasks.

The ability to recall differences in objects builds working memory too, ask kids remember where specific colors go or the place where they should sort them.

These sorting skills come into play in more advanced learning tasks as they classify objects, numbers, letters, etc.

And, when children sort items by color, they are building What a great fine motor task this was for little hands!  Sorting straws into a container with small holes, like our activity, requires a tripod grasp to insert the straws into the small holes of the grated cheese container.   

These grated cheese containers are awesome for fine motor play with small objects!

Sorting items like cut up straws helps preschoolers and toddlers develop skills such as:

  • Fine motor skills (needed for pencil grasp, scissor use, turning pages, etc.)
  • Hand strength (needed for endurance in coloring, cutting, etc.)
  • Visual discrimination (needed to determine differences in letters, shapes, and numbers)
  • Visual attention
  • Visual discrimination
  • Visual perceptual skills
  • Left Right discrimination (needed for handwriting, fine motor tasks)
  • Counting
  • Patterning
  • Classification skills

Preschoolers can get a lot of learning (colors, patterns, sorting, counting) from this activity too.  Have them count as they put the pieces in, do a pattern with the colored straws, sort from smallest to biggest pieces and put them in the container in order…the possibilities are endless!

Cut straw into small pieces and provide three recycled containers to sort and work on fine motor skills with kids.

Color Sorting Activity with Straws

Once she got a little tired of the activity, I let it sit out on the table for a while with two  more containers added.  I started dropping in colored straw pieces into the containers and sorted them by color. 

Use colored straws to sort and work on fine motor skills with recycled containers.

Baby Girl picked right up on that and got into the activity again.  This lasted for a long time.  We kept this out all day and she even wanted to invite her cousin over to play with us.  So we did!  This was a hit with the toddlers and Little Guy when he came home from preschool.  Easy, cheap, and fun.  I’ll take it!

Looking for more fun ways to work on color sorting?

You’ll find more activities to build hand strength, coordination, and dexterity in this resource on Fine Motor Skills.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Colors Handwriting Kit

Rainbow Handwriting Kit– This resource pack includes handwriting sheets, write the room cards, color worksheets, visual motor activities, and so much more. The handwriting kit includes:

  • Write the Room, Color Names: Lowercase Letters
  • Write the Room, Color Names: Uppercase Letters
  • Write the Room, Color Names: Cursive Writing
  • Copy/Draw/Color/Cut Color Worksheets
  • Colors Roll & Write Page
  • Color Names Letter Size Puzzle Pages
  • Flip and Fill A-Z Letter Pages
  • Colors Pre-Writing Lines Pencil Control Mazes
  • This handwriting kit now includes a bonus pack of pencil control worksheets, 1-10 fine motor clip cards, visual discrimination maze for directionality, handwriting sheets, and working memory/direction following sheet! Valued at $5, this bonus kit triples the goal areas you can work on in each therapy session or home program.

Click here to get your copy of the Colors Handwriting Kit.

Visual Figure Ground

visual figure ground

Vision and visual skills are complex with sub-categories such as visual figure ground. Luckily, occupational therapists are equipped with the ability and knowledge to assess vision at many levels. One type of visual skill that OTs assess for is called visual figure ground. In this post, we will break down what figure ground means, how visual-figure ground it fits into vision as a whole, and some red flags we look for. You’ll find some creative figure ground activities to build this skill, too!

Visual figure ground


Visual figure ground is the ability to discriminate between the object of focus and the other objects that are also in view, using visual skills such as attention, visual memory, and other components of visual perceptual skills. This is a hugely important skill in reading and writing, as well as learning and retaining information. 

Vision as a whole is made up of many parts. For daily activities, sighted individuals need to have visual clarity/focus (this can be adjusted with glasses), eye movement skills, and visual attention.  

In other words, figure ground is the ability to see an object and ignore the background. Without this ability, it may seem like a child needs glasses even though they may have technically perfect vision at the optometrist.

Visual figure ground has to do with visual attention, and how the eyes work with the brain to understand an image.


Below a general list of red flags to look for when it comes to visual figure ground. Many of these red flags are the same for other visual perception skills, as it often requires the combination of several skills to perform a task.

This is not an exhaustive list, but some ideas to work from. 

  • Difficulty completing age-appropriate puzzles
  • Difficulty reading or searching for important information in a text
  • Unable to complete mazes, “I Spy”, word searches, etc. in a similar way to their peers
  • Prefers simple artwork/images to complex 
  • Gives up quickly when looking for an item in their desk
  • Assumes many items are “lost” when they are in view/nearby
  • Difficulty coping from the board 
  • Unable to find a toy they want from the toy box
  • Difficulty finding a yogurt cup in the full refrigerator

You may be wondering, how do I know if its a problem with visual skills or something bigger, like attention overall?

Visual Figure Ground Activities

Being that the primary occupation of children is play, so it is through play that we address underlying skills such as figure ground. You’ll love this long list of visual activities that target a variety of areas, including visual figure ground.

Playing “I Spy” or “hide-and-go-seek” with familiar objects around the house can be a great way to get their brains prepped for visual discrimination of figure ground. They will use visual attention, visual tracking, and problem solving skills to win! 

Reading books or engaging in other activities provided by ‘Busy Town’, ‘Where’s Waldo’, or, of course, the ‘I Spy’ series are other great places to start. There are towns of great vision books recommendations for you that work to develop skills through reading.

You can also involve younger children in these types of activities by having them sort colorful cereal into the color categories, dig through the laundry basket to find matching socks, or really, anything that makes sense in your home. 

Figure Ground Worksheets

Sometimes, relating the vision skills to a reading or writing task is needed, and that’s where the figure ground worksheets come into play. Worksheets can get a bad rap, but it is possible to make worksheets functional, fun, and meaningful for kids so that they develop essential skills.

We have an awesome apple activity set that was developed to target visual skills, as well as tons of free resources for you to build visual figure ground skills! 

These free printable resources target figure ground skills and cover a variety of themes.

Visual processing bundle
Visual Processing Bundle is a collection of resources on visual processing skills.

One of our most popular tools to address visual figure ground is our Visual Processing Bundle. It’s a collection of printable resources, worksheets, handouts, and activity booklets geared towards all things vision.

Sydney Thorson, OTR/L, is a new occupational therapist working in school-based therapy. Her
background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about
providing individualized and meaningful treatment for each child and their family. Sydney is also
a children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.

Spatial Awareness Toys and Activities

spatial awareness toys

For kids that struggle with body awareness, position-in-space, and overall spatial understanding, spatial awareness toys are fun ways to develop a specific set of skills that impact function of every day tasks. Occupational therapy toys like these space-based play support development of these areas. Want to help kids become more aware of their body position, the space that they need to function, write, and perform tasks through play? Here we are talking spatial awareness toys!

Let’s talk toys to support spatial awareness skills.

Spatial awareness toys and spatial awareness games to develop visual spatial skills.

Spatial Awareness Toys

In this post, we’ll cover a few different things:

  • Spatial Awareness Definition
  • Spatial awareness activities
  • An easy spatial awareness tool for handwriting
  • Spatial awareness toys

Kids are often motivated by play as a means to support development of skills. When games and toys develop skills in which they struggle, it can be meaningful and engaging for the child. They may not even realize they are developing those skill areas through play. Before we get to the toy ideas, let’s go over spatial awareness in more detail.

Spatial Awareness Definition

First, let’s cover the definition of spatial awareness. You might be thinking…ok, I know a child who might be having issues with awareness of space during functional tasks… But exactly what is spatial awareness?

The definition of Spatial Awareness is being aware of oneself in space. Incorporating body awareness, visual spatial skills, and orientation, spatial awareness involves positioning oneself and/or functional items (pencil, a ball, a bag of groceries, etc.) in relation to oneself and the world around.

Spatial awareness means several things:

  • Awareness of spatial concepts can look like reaching for items without overshooting or missing the object.
  • It can mean use of a map to navigate streets or a new middle school.
  • It can incorporate spacing between letters and words in handwriting.
  • It can mean navigating a crowded hallway while carrying a backpack and a stack of papers.

Being able to reason about the space around us, and how to manipulate objects in space, is a critical part of everyday life and everyday functional tasks. This specific skill allows us to safely cross a street, fold clothing, load the dishwasher, place objects in a locker, put together a piece of “some assembly required” furniture, and other functional cognitive tasks. And these skills are especially important for educational success in particular handwriting tasks, math, STEM, and science.

Most of us realize as we walk through a doorway that we need to space ourselves through the middle of the door.  Those with poor visual spatial skills may walk to closely to the sides and bump the wall.

Visual-spatial skills are used when a middle school or high school student uses a map to navigate a new school. Orienting yourself on the map and then relating that to the real world to make turns, movements in a large space takes a complex set of skills guided by visual spatial relations.

Spatial awareness skills also involve the fine motor tasks of coordinating handwriting with writing in spaces allowed on paper, placing letters within an area (lines), and forming letters in the correct direction.  

So what is spatial awareness? Let’s break it down even further…

Spatial awareness and spatial perception

Spatial Awareness can be broken into three areas, specifically related to spatial perception: position in space, depth perception, and topographical orientation.

  1. Position in Space– where an object is in space in relation to yourself and others. This skill includes awareness of the way an object is oriented or turned.  It is an important concept in directional language such as in, out, up, down, in front of, behind, between, left, and right. Children with problems with this skill area will demonstrate difficulty planning actions in relation to objects around them.  They may write letter reversals after second grade.  They typically show problems with spacing letters and words on a paper.  
  2. Depth Perception– Distances between a person and objects.  This ability helps us move in space. Grasping for a ball requires realizing where the ball is in relation to ourselves.  Kids with deficits in this area may have trouble catching a ball or walking/running/jumping over an obstacle. Copying words from a vertical plane onto a horizontal plane may be difficult and they will have trouble copying from a blackboard. 
  3. Topographical Orientation– Location of objects in an environment, including obstacles and execution of travel in an area.  Kids with difficulties in this area may become lost easily or have difficulties finding their classroom after a bathroom break.

Visual Spatial Skills develop from an awareness of movements of the body.  If a child has true visual spatial skills, they will likely demonstrate difficulties with athletic performance, coordination, and balance.  They may appear clumsy, reverse letters and numbers in handwriting, and may tend to write from right to left across a page.  They will have difficulty placing letters on lines, forming letters correctly, and forming letters with appropriate size.   

When kids struggle with the ability to perceive where they are in space…when children are challenged to identify how much room they need to navigate the world around them…These are all examples of spatial awareness skills.

What is spatial awareness and how does it relate to handwriting

Visual Perception and spatial awareness in kids.  What is Spatial awareness and why do kids have trouble with spacing between letters and words, reversing letters, and all things vision.  Great tips here from an Occupational Therapist, including tips and tools to help kids with spacing in handwriting.
Letter size and use of margins also fall under the term “spatial awareness”. Use these spacing tool ideas to support spatial awareness in handwriting.
What is spatial awareness?  Tips and tools for handwriting, reading, scissors, and all functional skills in kids and adults, from an Occupational Therapist.
Visual Perception and spatial awareness in kids.  What is Spatial awareness and why do kids have trouble with spacing between letters and words, reversing letters, and all things vision.  Great tips here from an Occupational Therapist, including tips and tools to help kids with spacing in handwriting.
You can use a spacing tool to support spatial awareness skills in kids.

visual spatial relations activities

Addressing spatial awareness can occur with a handwriting spacing tool like the one we made, but other spacing activities can help with visual spatial relations, too. Try some of these activities:

  • Create an obstacle course using couch cushions, chairs, blankets, pillows, and other items in the house.
  • Try this activity for teaching over, under, around, and through with pretend play.
  • Create a paper obstacle course.  Draw obstacles on paper and have your child make his /her pencil go through the obstacles.  Draw circles, holes, mud pits, and mountains for them to draw lines as their pencil “climbs”, “jumps”, “rolls”, and even erases!
  • Write words and letters on graph paper.  The lines will work as a guide and also a good spacing activity.
  • Use stickers placed along the right margin of  to cue the student that they are nearing the edge of paper when writing.  
  • Highlight writing lines on worksheets.
  • Draw boxes for words on worksheets for them to write within.
  • Play Simon Says. Print off these Simon Says commands to target specific skill areas in therapy sessions or at home.
  • Practice directions.  Draw arrows on a paper pointing up, down, left, and right.  Ask your child to point to the direction the arrow is pointing.  Then have them say the direction the arrows are pointing.  Then create actions for each arrow.  Up may be jumping. Down may be squatting. The Left arrow might be side sliding to the left, and the Right arrow might be a right high kick. Next, draw more rows of arrows in random order.  Ask your child to go through the motions and try to go faster and faster.

spatial awareness Activities  

For more multisensory learning and hands-on play incorporating the development of spatial awareness skills, visit these blog posts:

Spatial Awareness Toys

This post contains affiliate links.

Looking for more tools to improve visual spatial awareness?  The toy ideas below are great for improving visual tracking and visual scanning in fun ways.  These toys, games, and ideas may be a great gift idea for little ones who have visual perceptual difficulties or problems with spacing and handwriting, body awareness in space, letter reversals, detail awareness, or maintaining place while reading.  

SO, save these ideas for grandparents and friends who might ask for gift ideas for birthdays and holidays.  These are some powerhouse spatial awareness ideas!

Spatial awareness toys and spatial awareness games for kids

Practice spatial awareness with this Pull The String Board Game
threading toy. Kids can use a unique pen to create lined designs and come away with a project they made on their own…while working on spacing. 

  When working on spatial awareness in handwriting, kids can count the number of holes in the pegboard in this Quercetti Tecno Building Toy. Copy instructions to build 3D structures while working on spacing of pieces and awareness of details in this fun engineering toy. 

Mini erasers as a spacing tool. Kids can write while keeping the small eraser on their desk. When they space out words, use the eraser as a measuring tool, just like our button buddy. You can also encourage them to finish their writing task and then go back and check over their work for spatial concepts with the eraser. 

Practice spatial awareness of the edges of the page by using a Clear Rulers. Kids can place the ruler along the edge of the paper to know when to stop writing and to use as a visual cue. Sometimes kids try to squish a word in at the end of a line when there is not enough room. Line the ruler up along the edge and as they write, they can see that they are nearing the edge of the paper.     

Use a highlighter to draw dots between each word, to provide a visual cue for spacing between words. You can also draw a line along the edge of the paper for a visual cue that the child is nearing the edge of the paper. 

Wooden Building Blocks Sets are powerful ways to support spatial awareness development. Similarly, and great for targeting body awareness related to objects in the area around us, is this DIY cardboard bricks activity which children love.

Spatial Awareness Games

One study found that children who play frequently with puzzles, construction, and board games tend to have better spatial reasoning ability. 

To get the whole family in on a spatial reasoning game while working on placement of pieces, try IQ Twist for a game of logic as you place pieces in this puzzle.

This related IQ Arrows game develops spatial relations but is great for adding to an occupational therapy bag. Use the arrows in play dough to work on directionality with heavy work through the hands. Make mini fine motor obstacle courses and other spatial relations activities on a smaller scale.

Kanoodle works on pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, and is a great way to practice spacing needed in handwriting.   

A toy like a geoboard allows a child to copy forms while counting out spaces of pegs. Try these Geoboards.

Here are more spatial awareness games and specifically spatial reasoning games:

Toys for Body in Space Awareness

These toys specifically address body awareness and directional awareness to help with overall spatial awareness development. Position in space impacts functioning in daily tasks at home and in the community. This plays a part in social emotional development and overall confidence as well. When a child feels confident in their body in space awareness, they can navigate the world around them with ease.

And, in regards to handwriting, sometimes, spacing problems on paper have to do with difficulties with directional awareness.

Use Arrows to start at the basics and practice naming left/write/top/bottom. Use them in whole-body movement activities where the child copies motions based on the arrow placement. Watch to make sure kids are not over stepping their allotted space. 

Use Wikki Stix for spacing on paper with physical cues for margins and spacing. Use the wikki sticks to space between words and a “ball” of the wikki stick to space between words.

Position in Space Toys

What is spatial awareness? Use these activity suggestions from an occupational therapist.

More Occupational Therapy Toys

  1. Fine Motor Toys 
  2. Gross Motor Toys 
  3. Pencil Grasp Toys 
  4. Toys for Reluctant Writers 
  5. Toys for Spatial Awareness 
  6. Toys for Visual Tracking 
  7. Toys for Sensory Play 
  8. Bilateral Coordination Toys 
  9. Games for Executive Functioning Skills 
  10. Toys and Tools to Improve Visual Perception 
  11. Toys to Help with Scissors Skills 
  12. Toys for Attention and Focus

Printable List of Toys for Spatial Awareness

Want a printable copy of our therapist-recommended toys to support spatial awareness?

As therapy professionals, we LOVE to recommend therapy toys that build skills! This toy list is done for you so you don’t need to recreate the wheel.

Your therapy caseload will love these SPATIAL AWARENESS toy recommendations. (There’s space on this handout for you to write in your own toy suggestions, to meet the client’s individual needs, too!)

Enter your email address into the form below. The OT Toolbox Member’s Club Members can access this handout inside the dashboard, under Educational Handouts. Just be sure to log into your account, first!


    We won’t send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

    Visual Tracking Tips and Tools for Treatment

    Here we are covering all things visual tracking, including what visual tracking means, how to improve visual tracking skills, and visual tracking toys to support development of this visual processing skill.

    Visual Tracking toys and tools to improve visual fixation, visual tracking, visual saccades, in handwriting, reading, and so many functional daily tasks and skills in kids.

    What is Visual Tracking

    Visual tracking is typically defined as the ability to efficiently move the eyes from left to right (or right to left, up and down, and circular motions) OR focusing on an object as it moves across a person’s visual field.

    This skill is important for almost all daily activities, including reading, writing, cutting with scissors, drawing, and playing.  According to typical development of visual processing, the ability to visually track objects emerges in children around the age of five.  

    Reading a paragraph without losing their place, copying a list of homework from the chalkboard, misalignment of vertical and horizontal numbers in math problems, confusion in interpreting written direction, mixing up left/right, persistent letter reversals…Does any of this sound familiar? It’s all visual tracking!  

    Vision and visual tracking are tasks that happen without us even realizing.  The brain and it’s jobs is an amazing thing and our eyes are moving, tracking, scanning, focusing, pursuing, and accommodating without us even realizing.     There are many ways to work on visual perception in playful and creative ways.

    Related is the visual figure ground piece, which allows us to pull visual information from a busy background, and track that visual input.  

    visual tracking exercises

    Visual Tracking Exercises

    Using visual tracking exercises like the one described below can be a powerful way to use eye exercises to improve vision in kids. These are the visual skills needed not for visual acuity, but rather, those unseen visual problems that impact visual processing skills.

    Visual tracking exercises can include vision therapy activities that improve areas such as visual saccades or smooth visual pursuit.

    Difficulties in Visual Tracking

    You might see problems with these tasks if a child has difficulty with visual tracking:

    • Losing place when reading.  Re-reads or skips words or lines.  
    • Omits, substitutes, repeats, or confuses similar words when reading.
    • Must use finger to keep place when reading.
    • Poor reading comprehension.
    • Short attention span.
    • Difficulty comprehending or remembering what is read.
    • Confusion with interpreting or following written directions.
    • Writing on a slat, up or down hill, spacing letters and words irregularly.
    • Confusion with left/right directions.
    • Persistent reversals of letters (b, d, p, q) when naming letters.
    • Reverses letters when writing (persistent reversals after 2nd grade.)
    • Errors when copying from a chalkboard or book to paper.
    • Misalignment of horizontal and vertical series’ of numbers in math problems.

    Also related to visual tracking and very similar while being involved in many of these problem areas, is visual scanning.  

    It is important to note that not all of these difficulties indicate a true visual tracking and or visual scanning problem.  For example, many children demonstrate poor reading comprehension and may show a short attention span while not having visual scanning problems.  

    All children should be evaluated by a pediatric physician, behavioral optometrist, and occupational therapist to determine true visual processing and visual tracking or visual scanning deficits.  These recommendations are meant to be a resource.    

    Visual Tracking toys and tools to improve visual fixation, visual tracking, visual saccades, in handwriting, reading, and so many functional daily tasks and skills in kids.

    Visual Tracking Activities

    Today, I’m sharing an easy visual tracking activity that will help kids with many functional difficulties.  This post is part of our new series where we are sharing 31 days of Occupational Therapy using mostly free or inexpensive materials.

    Today’s activity should cost you at most $2 unless you already have these items in your craft cupboard or office supplies.  Add this activity to your treatment bag for multiple activities.  Read on:

    Amazon affiliate links below.

    This Visual tracking activity is easy to set up.  Gather recycled bottle caps.  I used round dot labels from our office supplies to color the inside of each cap.  You could also use a marker or paint to color the bottle caps.  Use what you’ve got on hand to make this treatment activity free or almost free!   Next, gather matching crafting pom poms.  These can be found at the dollar store for and inexpensive treatment item.    

    visual tracking activities

    Skills Related to Visual Tracking

    It’s important to mention that there are several skills related to visual tracking. These sub-areas should be identified as a piece of the overall puzzle. Areas related to visual tracking play a role in the eyes ability to fixate on an object and follow it as it moves. These skills include:

    • Visual fixation
    • Peripheral tracking
    • Visual pursuit

    Visual Fixation Activity: (Maintaining vision on an item in the visual field) Work one eye at a time.  

    1. Have your child close one eye and place a colored crafting pom pom onto a matching bottle cap.  They need to use one hand to place the pom pom into the corresponding bottle cap and not move bottle caps around on the table.
    2. After the child has filled all of the bottle caps using one eye, repeat the task with the other eye.  
    3. Then complete the activity using both eyes.    
    4. You can also do this activity by placing the label dots on a paper. Match the bottle caps onto the dots. 

    Visual Stare Activity (the amount of time the eyes can fixate on an object without eye movements)

    1. Hold up one bottle cap on your nose.
    2. Ask your child to sit about 18 inches from you and stare at the bottle cap.  Note their eye movements as they stare.  
    3. Keep track of time that the child can stare at the target without visual saccades (eye movements).

    Peripheral Tracking Activity (visually tracking from the peripheral visual fields)

    1. Arrange the bottle caps on the table.  
    2. Place a pom pom in the center of the table, with the bottle caps all around it.  
    3. Ask your child to stare at the pom pom. While keeping their head still and only moving their eyes, ask them to quickly find a bottle cap with the same color.  
    4. Ask them to scan to another bottle cap of the same color until they’ve found all of the caps with that color.  
    5. You can add a level to this task by writing letters or numbers in the bottle caps and asking the child to find letters in order or numbers in order.

    Visual Tracking Pursuit Activity (watching and tracking a moving object)

    1. Set one bottle cap on the right side of the table.  
    2. Place another at the left side.  
    3. The adult should blow a crafting pom pom from the right to the left and ask the child to follow the pom with his eyes, without moving their head.
    4. Repeat by blowing the pom pom from the left to the right, front to back, and back to front in front of the child.

    Visual Tracking Tracing Lines (Watching a pencil line as it is formed, and following the line with eye-hand coordination to trace with a pencil or marker)

    1. Set one vertical row of bottle cap on the left side of the child.  
    2. Place another vertical row on the right side.
    3. The adult should draw a line from one bottle cap on the left side to a matching bottle cap on the right side.  
    4. Instruct the child to follow the pencil as you draw.  Nest, trace the line with your finger.  
    5. Ask the child to trace the line with their finger.  
    6. They can then trace the lines with a pencil or marker.
    Visual Tracking toys and tools to improve visual fixation, visual tracking, visual saccades, in handwriting, reading, and so many functional daily tasks and skills in kids.

    Mor eye tracking Strategies

    • Complete mazes
    • Do puzzles.
    • Use a newspaper or magazine article.  Ask your child to highlight all of the letter “a’s”.
    • Draw or paint pictures.
    • Place a marble in a pie pan.  Rotate the pan around and watch the ball as it rolls. Don’t move your head, only your eyes!
    • Find as many things shaped like a a square in the room.  Repeat the activity, finding all of the circular shaped items in the room.
    • Play “I Spy.”
    • Dot-to-dot pictures.
    • Play balloon toss.
    • Use tracing paper to trace and color pictures.
    • Trace letters with chalk.
    • Play flashlight tag on walls and ceilings. The adult an child each holds a flashlight. As the adult shines the light on walls, the child keeps their light superimposed on top of yours. Start with simple strait lines.  Then add curved lines, then a circle.  Tell them what you are drawing next.  Advance the activity by drawing shapes without telling them what you are doing next.
    • Play with wind-up cars.
    • Create a race track on the floor. Follow cars with your eyes.
    • Roll a ball between you and the child.  Roll from left-right, right-left, front-back, back-front, and toss the ball.

    Visual Tracking toys and tools to improve visual fixation, visual tracking, visual saccades, in handwriting, reading, and so many functional daily tasks and skills in kids.

    Visual tracking Toys

    Looking for more tools to improve visual tracking?  The toys below are great for improving visual tracking and visual scanning in fun ways.  These toys, games, and ideas may be a great gift idea for little ones who have visual perceptual difficulties or problems with visual tracking and handwriting, body awareness in space, letter reversals, detail awareness, or maintaining place while reading.  

    SO, save these ideas for grandparents and friends who might ask for gift ideas for birthdays and holidays.  These are some powerhouse visual tracking ideas!

    Use Pattern Blocks and Boards to work on visual fixation of shapes and sizes of shapes. 

    This Wooden Tangram Puzzle has many different shapes and forms that can be copied from instructions. Copying from a diagram is a great way to practice visual tracking.

    For younger kids, this Wooden Stacking Toy encourages tracking for color sorting.  Try some of our pom pom activities that we discussed above!

    Mazes are excellent for fostering and building on visual tracking skills. Particularly those that involve a moving ball such as a Marble Run
    or a labrynth.

    Watching a ball or moving object that is thrown around a room (like a balloon) is a great way to work on tracking in a big area. These Sportime Sensory Balls SloMo Balls are lightweight and move more slowly than a typical ball, allowing kids to visually track the bright color. These are very cool for games of toss and rolling in all planes and directions. Use them to address peripheral tracking as well. 

    A flashlight can be used in so many visual tracking activities. Shine the light on words or letters taped to walls. Play “I Spy” in a dark room, shine shapes like this flashlight can for visual tracking and form tracking.

    More visual Tracking Toys

    Also check out these other top occupational therapy toys:

    1. Fine Motor Toys   
    2. Gross Motor Toys 
    3. Pencil Grasp Toys 
    4. Toys for Reluctant Writers 
    5. Toys for Spatial Awareness 
    6. Toys for Visual Tracking 
    7. Toys for Sensory Play 
    8. Bilateral Coordination Toys 
    9. Games for Executive Functioning Skills 
    10. Toys and Tools to Improve Visual Perception 
    11. Toys to Help with Scissors Skills 
    12. Toys for Attention and Focus 

    Printable List of Toys for VISUAL TRACKING

    Want a printable copy of our therapist-recommended toys to support visual tracking skills?

    As therapy professionals, we LOVE to recommend therapy toys that build skills! This toy list is done for you so you don’t need to recreate the wheel.

    Your therapy caseload will love these VISUAL TRACKING toy recommendations. (There’s space on this handout for you to write in your own toy suggestions, to meet the client’s individual needs, too!)

    Enter your email address into the form below. The OT Toolbox Member’s Club Members can access this handout inside the dashboard, under Educational Handouts. Just be sure to log into your account, first!


      We won’t send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.
      Visual Tracking toys and tools to improve visual fixation, visual tracking, visual saccades, in handwriting, reading, and so many functional daily tasks and skills in kids.

      What is Motor Planning

      motor planning

      You may have heard the term motor planning but wondered what this means and what does it look like to utilize motor planning skills in everyday activities. Here, we are breaking down this important motor skills topic. Occupational therapists are skilled at analyzing movements and underlying skills needed to perform the things we do each day, or the tasks that occupy our time, and establishing an efficient and coordinated motor plan is one of the main aspects of this assessment. 

      Motor planning

      Motor Planning

      When we perform an action, there are movements of our bones, joints, and muscles that enable our bodies to move. It’s through this movement that the body and brain receives feedback, or a motor concept that tells the brain and body that we have moved in a certain way in order to accomplish a specific action. This is the motor plan for that particular task at work!

      Let’s look at a child’s motor skills in a specific action to really explore this concept. 

      Ok, so you’re walking along a hallway with an armful of bags and see a ball in your path. You walk around it and continue walking. But, hold on. That was a pretty cool ball. It was all red and shiny. It looked like a really fun ball to bounce. You stop, turn around, walk back to the ball, stoop down, put down your bags, and pick it up. Woah. It’s not only red and shiny, but it’s a little heavy too. 

      It takes a bit more muscle oomph than you were expecting. You hold your arm up high, with the ball up over your head. Totally not a baseball player’s pose, but all awkward and kid-like. You know. Pure fun throwing. 

      You toss that red, shiny, heavy ball as hard as you can towards a big old blank wall on one of the hallway walls. Now watch out! That red, shiny, heavy ball is bouncing around like crazy! 

      It’s bouncing off of the wall and right back at you! You jump to the side and then to the left and right as it bounces back and forth between the walls of that hallway. You have to skip to the side to avoid your bags. 

      The ball stops bouncing and rolls to the side of the hall. 

      Well, that was fun. You pick up the ball and hold it while you gather your bags. Now, you see a boy coming down the hall who sees that red, shiny, heavy ball in your hand and says, “Hey! There’s my ball!” You smile and toss the ball as he reaches out his hand and catches. “Thanks!!” he says as you wave and start walking down the hall again.

      What is Motor Planning? Tips and Tools in this post with a fun fine motor motor planning (dyspraxia) activity for kids and adults from an Occupational Therapist

      What is Motor Planning?

      Motor Planning happens with everything we do! From walking around objects in our path, to picking up items, to aiming and throwing, drawing, writing, getting dressed, and even dodging red bouncy balls…

      Motor Planning is defined as the problem solving and moving over, under, and around requires fine motor and gross motor skills and planning to plan out, organize, and carry out an action. We must organize incoming information, including sensory input, and integrate that information into our plan. We need to determine if a ball is heavy or light to pick up and hold it without dropping it.

      You might hear of motor planning referred to as praxis. 

      Praxis (generally also known as Motor Planning, but also it’s more than simply motor planning…) requires observing and understanding the task (ideation), planning out an action in response to the task (organization), and the act of carrying out the task (execution). A difficulty with any of these areas will lead to dyspraxia in many skill areas. 

      Praxis includes motor planning, but also involved is ideation, execution, and feedback, with adjustment to that feedback. You can see the similarities in motor planning, which refers to the conscious and subconscious (ingrained) motor actions or plans.

      Motor Planning is needed for everyday tasks. Think about the everyday activities that you complete day in and day out. Each of these actions requires a movement, or a series of movements to complete. There are both gross motor movements, fine motor movements, and posture all working together in a coordinated manner.

      There is a motor plan for actions such as:

      • using a toothbrush to brush one’s teeth
      • brushing hair
      • getting dressed
      • putting on a backpack
      • walking down a hallway
      • walking up steps
      • walking down steps
      • holding a pencil
      • writing with a pencil (motor planning and handwriting is discussed here.)
      • riding a bike
      • maintaining posture
      • putting on a coat or jacket (on top of other clothing such as a shirt so that in this case, there isn’t the tactile feedback available of the fabric directly on the skin’s surface)
      • performing sports actions such as swinging a baseball bat or tennis racket, running, or gymnastics like doing a cartwheel

      The interesting thing is that a movement plan, or the physical action that is completed whether the action has been performed in the past or if it is a new movement. A motor plan for a new task can be completed without thinking through how to move the body because it is just inherently completed.

      When we complete unfamiliar tasks and need to stop and think through how the body needs to move, is when we see inefficient movement, or motor planning issues.

      Motor Planning Difficulties

      Above, we talked about praxis as another term or way to name the motor plan concept. When there are difficulties with motor planning, we are referring to the opposite of praxis, or dyspraxia. 

       Dyspraxia can be a result of poor sensory integration, visual difficulties, fine motor and gross motor coordination and ability, neural processing, and many other areas.

      Motor planning difficulties can look like several things:

      • Difficult ability to complete physical tasks
      • Small steps
      • Slow speed
      • Pausing to think through actions
      • Clumsiness
      • Poor coordination
      • Weakness

      These challenges with motor function can exist with either new motor tasks or familiar actions. Deficits are apparent when speed is reduced so that the functional task isn’t efficient, when the motor task is unsafe, or poor completion of the task at hand.

      There are diagnoses that have poor motor planning as a component of the diagnosis. Some of these disorders can include:

      When motor planning difficulties exist, this can be a cause for other considerations related to movements, and demonstration of difficulties when participating in movement-based activities:

      • challenges in social interactions
      • anxiety
      • behaviors
      • social skills issues

      Today, I’ve got a quick and easy fine motor activity to work on motor planning with kids. This activity is part of our 31 Days of Occupational Therapy series where we’re sharing fun and frugal ideas for treatment of many OT skill areas with items you might already have in your house.

      motor planning activity

      Motor Planning Activity

      Affiliate links are included in this post. 

      Motor planning activity

      To make this motor planning activity, you’ll need just a few items: 

      • a clear plastic baggie
      • white crafting pom poms
      • one red pom pom. These are items we had in our crafting supplies, but you could modify this activity to use items you have. Other ideas might be beads, pin pong balls, ice cubes, or any small item.
      1. Fill the baggie with the pom poms and squeeze out the air. 
      2. Seal the baggie.
      3. Use a permanent marker to draw on a maze from one side of the baggie to the other. You can make this as complex as you like. 
      4. Add additional mazes, or two different pom pom colors for the maze. Work the red pom pom from one end of the maze to the other.
      Apraxia activity

      Squeezing the pom pom is a fine motor work out for the hands. You’ll need to open up the thumb web space (the part of your hand between the thumb and fingers, and use those intrinsic small muscles of the hand. Both of these areas are important for fine motor tasks like coloring and writing.

      Use this motor planning exercise as a warm-up activity before writing, coloring, and scissor activities. This is a great activity to have on hand in your therapy treatment bag or to pull out while waiting at the doctor’s office.

      Motor planning toys and games

      Motor Planning Activities

      Looking for more ways to work on dyspraxia with your kids? These are some fun fine and gross motor activities that are fun and creative. 

      The best thing about all of them is that they are open-ended. Use them in obstacle courses or in movement tasks to incorporate many skill areas. These are some fun ideas to save for gift ideas. Now which to get first…

      Work on fine motor dexterity and bilateral coordination while encouraging motor planning as the child matches colors of the nuts and bolts in this Jumbo Nuts and Bolts Set with Backpack set. The large size is perfect for preschoolers or children with a weak hand grasp.

      Practice motor planning and eye-hand coordination. This Button Mosaic Transperent Pegboard is a powerhouse of motor planning play. Kids can copy and match big and bright cards to the pegs in this large pegboard. I love that the toy is propped up on an incline plane, allowing for an extended wrist and a tripod grasp. Matching the colors and placing the pegs into the appropriate holes of the pegboard allow for motor planning practice.

      Develop refined precision of fine motor skills with eye-hand coordination. A big and bright puzzle like this Puzzle-shaped Block Set  allows kids to work on hand-eye coordination and motor planning as they scan for pieces, match the appropriate parts of the puzzle pieces, and attempt to work the pieces into place. Building a puzzle such as this one can be a workout for kids with hand and upper extremity weakness.

      Strengthen small motor skills. Kids of all ages can work on motor planning and fine motor skills with this Grimm’s Rainbow Bowls Shape & Color Sorting Activity. Use the colored fish to place into the matching cups, as children work on eye-hand coordination. Using the tongs requires a greater level of motor planning.

      You can modify this activity by placing the cups around a room for a gross motor visual scanning and motor planning activity. Children can then follow multi-level instructions as they climb over, around, under, and through obstacles to return the fish to their matching bowls.

      Encourage more gross motor planning with hopping, jumping, and skipping, or other gross motor tasks. This Crocodile Hop A Floor Mat Game does just that. It is a great way to encourage whole body motor planning and multiple-step direction following.

      Address balance and coordination. These Gonge Riverstones Gross Motor Course challenge balance skills as children step from stone to stone. These would make a great part of many imagination play activities as children plan out motor sequences to step, cross, hop, and jump…without even realizing they are working on motor planning tasks.

      Introduce multiple-step direction following and motor planning. These colored footprints like these Gonge Feet Markers support direction following skills. Plan out a combination of fine and gross motor obstacle courses for kids to work on motor planning skills.

      Make hand-eye coordination fun with challenges. For more fine motor coordination and motor planning, kids will love this Chickyboom Balance Game as they practice fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and about balance and mathematics.

      Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

      Forest Animals Shadow Matching Worksheet

      shadow matching worksheet with forest animals theme

      Today we have a fun shadow matching worksheet for you. This forest animals activity is great for adding to a woodland animal theme, but more importantly, use the shadow worksheet to build visual perceptual skills in areas such as form constancy, visual memory, and more.

      Shadow math
      Free printable shadow matching worksheet with a forest animals theme.

      Shadow matching worksheet

      How are your visual perceptual skills?  

      My learner can see, but can’t really SEE.  Wait, what?  Isn’t all “seeing” the same?  Not really.  There is seeing in the sense of visual acuity, how well the eyes can see items up close and at a distance.  Then there is seeing in the sense or perceiving an object. A person can have great visual acuity, 20/20 in fact, but have terrible visual perception.  In visual acuity the eye basically has to see the object.  In perception it not only has to see the object, but make sense of it. These vision issues are covered in our blog post on visual efficiency.

      For example; I can see the puzzle pieces, but I can’t perceive that each piece becomes something whole, or which piece is the right shape.

      This article does an excellent job of explaining visual perception, its effects, and how to improve this skill.

      Armed with this information, it is critical to work on developing visual perceptual skills at an early age.  Visual perceptual skills begin in infancy with facial recognition, and by school age are necessary for reading, writing, and mathematics.

      When it comes to visual perception, the OT Toolbox has you covered!  Check out the latest PDF free printable, Forest Animals Shadow Matching Worksheet.

      You can get the shadow matching worksheet below by entering your email address into the form, or head to The OT Toolbox Member’s Club and going to the visual perception area. Use this item in a forest animals theme! And if you’re doing a forest animals theme, definitely be sure to add this Forest Animals Scissor Skills Activity. It’s a free set of printable puzzles kids can color, cut out, and put back together.

      This is a great activity to build visual perceptual skills as early as preschool age. It addresses form constancy, figure ground, visual discrimination and visual attention. You can find other matching activities that support visual perceptual skill development in our free visual perception packet. It includes resources like this flower match-up, and outer space matching worksheets.

      Ways to modify the shadow matching worksheet:

      • Laminate the page for reusability. This saves on resources, and many learners love to write with markers!
      • Print in black and white or color for different levels of difficulty
      • Cut the shapes and make a matching game instead of using a writing tool to draw lines
      • Talk about the animals, describe their characteristics, and give context clues to help your learner understand why certain pictures match

      Other skills addressed using this forest animal activity sheet:

      • Attention
      • Behavior
      • Frustration tolerance
      • Task avoidance
      • Self regulation
      • Organization
      • Scanning
      • Fine motor skills – pencil grasp, drawing lines

      In order to create a full lesson or treatment plan, therapists will need to be armed with more than just this one shadow matching worksheet.  The OT Toolbox offers several free printable items to work on visual perception, including:

      If you are looking for all of your resources in one place, the OT Toolbox also offers a Visual Processing Bundle, featured here:

      What other tasks or games work on visual perception?

      • Puzzles or dot to dots
      • Working on spatial concepts such as “in, out, on, under, next to, up, down, in front of.”
      • Hidden pictures games 
      • The game Memory – matching hidden pictures
      • Word search puzzles and mazes
      • Construction tasks using legos or popsicle sticks
      • Copying 3D block designs
      • Cleaning and organizing – washing dishes, sorting silverware, sorting laundry, organizing spaces
      • There are several Ipad apps available if necessary, but I recommend using electronics with caution, and following up with a real life task.

      Now you know  more about “seeing” better.  Before working on visual perceptual skills, make sure your learner has correct visual acuity.  Sometimes their struggle is due to acuity rather than perception.  In this case, a pair of eyeglasses is an easy fix!

      Whether your learner is working on this shadow worksheet, or any other resources by the OT Toolbox, make learning fun and motivating.  There is nothing better than a learner who is excited to see what their therapist has to offer.

      shadow worksheet, shadow matching worksheet, forest animals

      Free Shadow Matching Worksheet

      Want to work on shadow matching with a forest animals theme? This shadow worksheet supports development of visual perceptual skills through play! Perfect for adding to a forest animals weekly therapy theme. Enter your email address into the form below.

      Or, if you are a Member’s Club member, be sure to log in and then head to the visual perception area of free downloads that are on The OT Toolbox website. Not a member? Join now.

      Free Forest Animals Worksheets

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        *The term, “learner” is used throughout this post for readability, however this information is relevant for students, patients, clients, children of all ages, etc. The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.

        Victoria Wood

        Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

        Visual Noise and Learning

        Visual noise in the classroom

        In this post you will be discovering how to create a calm classroom, specifically tips to avoid the visual noise that distracts learning in the school environment. Classroom décor and organization can directly effect the engagement level of children in any classroom or learning space. When the environment is too visually stimulating, a student’s ability to focus becomes difficult. Keeping children’s attention can become frustrating. When a classroom environment that is soothing and organized is created, children are better able to stay engaged. In this blog, you will learn about the three different ways to make your classroom visually calm. 

        Visual noise in the classroom

        What is Visual Noise?

        When working with children, teachers think about all of the colors of the rainbow, and want to make classrooms bright and cheery. So many classroom theme sets have fun colors, bright designs, and patterns, contrasting bulletin board boarders, etc. Many believe that having a colorful classroom will keep children interested and engaged. 

        Visual Noise is just that: a visually distracting, or “noisy” visual scene in the classroom. A lot of teachers set up bulletin boards throughout the room with cut-outs in various themes: animal/monster/any theme , alphabet stickers, and painted murals on the walls. Maybe your classroom has a circle time rug that includes the ten different color squares. Perhaps you want to make sure all the children have something they like to do, so you have 20 fine motor choices in the manipulative area. 

        There is just one problem with using these types of visuals in the classroom, they are distracting! 

        • The bulletin boards all around the room are adorable, and fun to look at. So during circle time, you might find a child gazing at the wall, figuring out what new item is there. 
        • When there are rugs filled with colors, you may notice children looking down at the rug, maybe at the bright colors, while singing the color song in their head.
        • If teachers provide too many choices in one area of the classroom, children work with one toy for three minutes, then they are onto the next, without honing in, or practicing the skills that were intended.
        • For young children, and lots of adults, less is more! 

        visual processing

        Humans use vision from birth, to engage with the world around them. The way your brain process what you see, impacts how you interpret your interactions with the environment, and the people around you. To learn more about vision, this amazing PDF discusses visual hypersensitivity and under-sensitivity (or sensory seeking). 

        There are some visual processing red flags that may indicate difficulties with visual processing or ocular motor control:

        • Increased sensitivity to light
        • Easily distracted by visual stimuli, or difficulty sustaining visual attention to an activity
        • Frequently squints, rubs eyes, or gets a headache after visually demanding tasks such as reading, using a phone/tablet/computer, or watching television
        • Loses place in reading or writing
        • Trouble finding things they are looking for, even when they seem to be “right in front of them”
        • Distractions with reading
        • Difficulty tracking visual information
        • Difficulty initiating or holding eye contact
        • Difficulty focusing on one piece of visual information
        • Increased fear of, or desire for, being in the dark
        • Difficulty discriminating between similar shapes, letters, or pictures
        • Letter reversals or number reversals
        • Difficulties with handwriting such as letter reversals, sizing, spacing, or alignment of letters
        • Frequently loses their place while reading or copying
        • Often bumps into things
        • May be slow or hesitant with stairs
        • Difficulty with visually stimulating activities, i.e., puzzles, locating objects in pictures, completing mazes, word searches or dot-to-dots
        • Trouble knowing left from right or writing with both hands

        How to reduce visual noise when planning your classroom

        When planning out your classroom, visual stimulation is important, however there are many ways to make sure there is reduced visual noise, so the environment is not overwhelming.

        Think about how you feel when you go to the spa. Those deep earthy wall colors calm your bodies and nerves instantly! The Montessori and Reggio Emilia educational philosophies advise visual components as a way to keep their classroom calm and focused.

        The Reggio Emilia philosophy recognizes the environment as the child’s third teacher. What is in a child’s environment, how it’s organized, and what it looks like, directly impacts what a child will learn that day. 

        two ways to make sure your environment is visually calming 

        Colors – When picking out colors for your classroom, whether it be for the furniture, rugs, or wall decor, the best way to support a calm visual classroom, is to choose more natural colors. These include blues, greens and browns.

        • Choose toy baskets, or white bins, as opposed to brightly colored ones.
        • Consider turning toy shelves around or covering with neutral fabric to further reduce visual noise.
        • Choose predictable carpet rugs (Amazon affiliate link) like this one, instead of random colorful squares. Carpet samples of neutral colors are an excellent idea to create boundaries while limiting visual distraction.
        • When decorating your walls, allow for empty blank space, and use more of children’s artwork. Consider the use of cloth and fabric.

        Classroom Organization – When choosing how many activities and materials to place in each are of your classroom, keep in mind that less is more! When children have too many options to choose from, this can create a short attention span, and overwhelm from choice overload.

        Organization in the classroom can mean stacks of papers, tons of sticky notes, messy desks, and disorganized files, too.

        In a typical preschool classroom, there are 8 areas of learning: art, fine motor, science, reading, dramatic play, block, large motor and snack! When you use furniture to visually create specific spaces for each center, the classroom is organized, and children know what is expected of them in each area.

        Older classrooms may not have the toys, block areas, and motor components, but there are designated areas: group areas, centers, desks, cubbies, or lockers, teacher areas, information centers, etc. All of these areas can be considered when it comes to visual input.

        This blog from Lovely Connection, on preschool classroom set up, includes important aspects to think about as you plan your classroom layout. She includes information about including noise, popularity, supervision, boundaries, space, and the race track (when kids run around the room in a circular pattern!)

        What happens when children are still overwhelmed, even when the environments are visually calming?

        When a child feels overwhelmed for any reason, having a calm down corner, that is easily accessible and they can stay in as long as they need, is a must have.  My Soothing Sammy Emotions Program.” is an effective calm down area because students are excited to spend time with the adorable golden retriever Sammy. Not only does “The Sammy Program” teach children how to calm down, it guides them through communication and problem solving situations in a visual way that isn’t overwhelming.

        Check out this great blog about visual processing and visual efficiency from the OT Toolbox archives. When a child has visual processing difficulties, they have a harder time taking in visual information, and processing it in order to make sense of it.

        This visual processing bundle, also available in the Toolbox, can support children who are demonstrating visual processing challenges. 

        The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook (also available on Amazon) written by Colleen Beck of the OT Toolbox, is a great resource to start understanding sensory processing disorders.

        A final note about visual noise

        Visual noise doesn’t only occur indoors, it can happen outdoors, especially if there is a lot of activity and sunlight. Being mindful of the visual stimuli outdoors, is just as important as setting up an indoor classroom.

        If you have a child who is having a hard time visually processing their environment outside, these visual sensory activities can be completed outdoors to support their sensory system.

        While considering visual sensory overload in the classroom, also be sure to check out our resource on auditory sensitivities in the classroom. Both are very useful in setting up an inclusive classroom environment for success.

        Classroom themes are adorable and cute! When planning your classroom, keep in mind how “busy” and overstimulating different colors and amount of objects can be. This will help keep your students calm and engaged. Although everyone processes their environment differently, anyone can all benefit from a more calming environment, especially when learning new skills! 

        Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.