Visual Discrimination

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Visual discrimination is the capacity to see differences between objects that are similar, detect specific features of objects, match identical objects, and point out similarities objects share. This is a handy skill that helps in navigating the world. For example, being able to visually distinguish between Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper while on a walk in the woods can save you from an itch, itch, itchy experience.

Visual discrimination helps us sort and classify things we encounter as we engage the world. Among other things, this makes life safer and more predictable. For example, it’s handy to look at an apple and know it is not a pepper or tomato.

Visual discrimination is also an important part of reading and writing. Both skills are much easier when you can tell the difference between the letters n and u.

All of our senses are important, but we humans are visual creatures. James Clear writes, “The human body has about eleven million sensory receptors. Approximately ten million of those are dedicated to sight. Some experts estimate that half of the brain’s resources are used on vision.”1

Visual discrimination is a skill that is developed–it takes time and practice to refine. That said, children are wired to learn this skill and most do so at an amazing pace. Mostly through self-directed play, explorations, and interactions with near-peers and adults.

Very young children may look at a tiger or hen and exclaim, “Puppy!” because everything that has a face and is not a human gets chucked into the category puppy.

As they see more of the world, they learn that tigers and hens are not puppies. They begin seeing that the world is full of different looking creatures with faces. Some are large, some are small. Some have striped fur, some have feathers. They become so skilled that they can not only tell a tiger from a hen, they can effortlessly distinguish that one small all-black creature is indeed a puppy while the other small all-black creature is something called a kitten.

Their skill improves with more practice and experience in the world–to the point that they can visually tell the difference between these very similar letters.

And with even more practice and experience they can distinguish between similar but different combinations of letters like these.

It should be noted that searches of phrases like preschool visual discrimination and child visual discrimination bring up results full of lessons, craptivities, worksheets, flashcards, and worry. By worry I mean content aimed at scaring parents into thinking they need to take action to assure their child develops strong visual discrimination skills lest they not learn to read and write.

While some children do indeed struggle with developing this skill and need remediation, the vast majority of children build their visual discrimination skills through the normal flow of play, exploration, and life. It’s something we humans have been doing for a very long time. There’s generally no need for the worksheets and lessons and worry.

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  1. Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 84). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.