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.

visual figure ground

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