Promoting Figure-Ground Discrimination During Hand Activities

Figure-Ground Discrimination is a visual-perceptual skill that helps a child to interpret what she sees; it is the ability to find an object against its background.

The figure is the object that a child is interested in seeing or finding. The ground is the background or the area surrounding the figure. It is easier to find a yellow rubber duck on a blue carpet than on a yellow one because the blue carpet (the ground) creates a contrasting color against the yellow duck (the figure).

Figure-ground discrimination enables an individual to sort out the important visual stimuli, such as a book from a busy background (i.e. a table cluttered with magazines). The size, shape and number of objects are also a factor. For example, the large red magnetic bingo wand shown in the above photo is really easy to see against the background of smaller objects and the red stands out in contrast to the mostly brown and yellow objects.

Most young children have no difficulties with figure-ground discrimination and can readily find the cheese crackers hidden in an oriental carpet design. However, individuals with learning and developmental disabilities may find it challenging to locate objects in a busy background. Activities may be adapted to work on this skill by 'hiding" task materials to find before using them.  For example, the client in the above photo is shown searching for the small round red or green bells that can be inserted into the corresponding opening in the container.

Adding the step of searching for the needed materials may make any activity more challenging, fun and therapeutic.  Materials such as small bean bags, heavy magnets, colored rice or a vibrating motor add sensory stimulation that might further motivate the individual to find materials such as the checkers used in a Connect Four game.

This activity adaptation may be best suited for familiar tasks. For example, if a client frequently puts pegs into a board, present a box filled with pegs and many background objects.

Hidden Objects Suggestions

  1. Magnetic letters (as shown in the feature photo) and larger magnets mixed in with sensory objects.  Separating the magnets before placing them on a refrigerator is great for strengthening hands and bilateral coordination.
  2. After finding the small plastic rings that I cut out of detergent bottles, my client could choose to string them or attach to the nub on the ball.
  3. After finding the small interlocking cubes, my clients tried to spell words.

4. After finding the Velcro -backed shapes, clients may create a design on the book stand. 

5. After finding Lego bricks, my clients attached them to a wall board.

6. After finding the Light Brite pegs, my clients inserted them into the frame.

7. Clients may look for the safety pictures in a bin filled with objects, other pictures or both.

8. Fill a tray with coins and larger objects and ask the client to find the money. This has been a helpful method to teach developmentally disabled individuals to discriminate coins from other objects. Feeding the ball  is also a great way to strengthen hands and promote bilateral coordination.

9. After clients remove the scrabble tiles from the background objects, then may line them up in alphabetical order.

10. After removing the plastic weaving shapes, clients may weave them onto a long plastic strand as shown below. 

As you can see, this list of fine-motor materials is endless. Enjoy the ones I shared and the many that you come up with!!!

Posts with Fine-Motor Materials to Use in Figure Ground Search

Bottle caps, Velcro, magnets


Plastic shapes for stringing

Screw caps

Puzzle Pieces

Scrabble tiles

These activities involve a lot of sitting! Feel free to explore using them while clients kneel, are in prone extension over a ball, or moving high and low by placing the container on a high shelf and the fine-motor task on the floor. 




Leave a Reply