Visual stimulation activities for early years children
What is visual stimulation? And what makes it so important in early years?
Children make connections and learn a lot about the world through their eyes and they will rely on their visual skills to recognise familiar people, make discoveries about their environment, and keep themselves safe.
Visual stimulation refers to a reaction that happens with the receptor cells inside the eye's retina when aroused by the stimulation of light. Stimulating newborns’ vision helps them to synchronise what they see with their eyes with their brain and, over time, this improves the coordination and function of the brain and sight.
In the first few years of life, the development of vision vastly supports the development of new concepts and an understanding of the world around them, and visual skills are often closely linked to areas of development such as cognition, memory and recognition.
Newborns and babies
During the early stages of your child’s life, they will be making leaps and bounds in their visual development. At birth, babies are not thought to be able to discriminate between colours and therefore are better stimulated by high-contrast images. Babies also develop the ability to choose what to visually focus on, such as objects and people, and will begin to track things that they are interested in, which will see them move their head and eyes in time with the object that is moving.
Baby gym (visual tracking)
For your young baby, visual tracking is a massive step in their optical development. Placing them under a baby gym is a way of supporting this aspect of development as they can fix their sight on the overhanging objects. Traditionally, mobiles used over the baby's cot were seen as a way to stimulate a baby’s eyesight, however, there is a more recent movement that suggests they overstimulate babies. So, if you have a mobile, you might find it's better placed over their changing area or play space.
Other ways you can support your baby’s visual tracking are using a puppet or toy and slowly moving it left to right, forwards and backwards as you talk or sing to them.
Playing peek-a-boo (object permanence and eye contact)
The concept of object permanence is a skill that develops in the first year of your child’s life. Object permanence means that they have developed an understanding that something exists even when it is out of sight. Before children understand object permanence, they do not realise that objects and people still exist, even when they can’t be seen – for example, they may cry when you leave the room as they don’t realise that you will come back.
Peek-a-boo is a great way of developing object permanence in babies. As you hide away from your baby behind your hands for small amounts of time and reappear, they will begin to understand that you are still there, even in the moments that they can see you.
You can also do this behind a door, from under a blanket or while you put them in their car seat.
You can also develop object permanence by making a box for your baby to drop toys into, that they can then lift and discover the object underneath.
Toddlers will have typically developed their ability to see longer distances. They will probably be able to understand their reflection in a mirror, and also remember what familiar people, objects, logos and places look like.
At this stage your toddler may also be mastering hand-eye coordination and depth perception, which is the ability to judge distances in daily life. This is particularly useful when stepping onto a kerb at the right time or placing things back into baskets with success.
Filling and emptying (coordination)
Hand-eye coordination comes from visual development and hand-eye coordination is important for skill-building across many streams of learning.
Filling and emptying containers is a fun way of supporting your child in the development of hand-eye coordination, as they must carefully use their hands, fingers, spoons or scoops to load a tub, bottle or container with water, sand or something else exciting!
You can be as ambitious as you like when it comes to this activity. You could add some yoghurt pots and Tupperware boxes to bath time so your child can explore filling and emptying here. You could use buckets and spades in the garden or dried rice, spoons and bowls on a tray at the table!
When filling and emptying, your child will be thinking about the relationship between their bodies and the objects that they want to move, which will in turn also support their development of depth perception.
Beginnings of reading (turning pages)
Your toddler may start to show an interest in exploring books independently by turning the pages and observing the pictures on their own. When they start turning pages in books themselves, this action may appear clumsy, and they might turn multiple pages at once and hold the book the wrong way round.
As your child’s fine motor skills, motor coordination and single vision improve, they will be able to carry out this action more accurately. To get them to practise this skill, ask them to take the lead when you are sharing stories and encourage them to hold the book and turn the pages.
Building blocks (visual coordination)
Building blocks are an amazing resource. They are widely enjoyed by most children, are versatile and open-ended and are great for promoting gross and fine motor skills.
But they are also very good at supporting visual coordination. Your child may begin to stack and move the blocks in a variety of ways and use their knowledge of depth perception, hand-eye coordination and control to get the blocks into their desired position. By practising these skills over and over, they will also begin to learn mathematical and scientific concepts such as weight distribution.
Pre-school children usually have well-developed hand-eye coordination and can use their new skills to support them in many different activities such as playing games, climbing, drawing and everyday routines. Also, at this stage your child may be recognising shapes and letters, and may even begin to read some simple or familiar words in their environment, all of which is supported by their visual skills.
Playing catch or hitting targets (hand-eye coordination)
Throwing and catching games are a great way of supporting the development of visual tracking and hand-eye coordination in young children. When playing catch or throwing a ball at a target with your child, give them time to process where they are in relation to their target. They will use their vision to help them aim. They will also need to judge the force that they will need to exert in order to achieve a desired outcome.
These skills will help them in many other ways such as forming letters, putting on their own clothes, feeding themselves and doing other day-to-day tasks.
Taking them into the outside world to explore (visual experience)
The outside world can provide a great visual sensory experience for your child. Visual experiences can be highly memorable for young child children and can also be a good sensory experience.
Exploring outdoors with your child can help them to see things that they may not have seen before, such as seasonal changes, animals and insects. Experiencing new things outside can also inspire them in other ways, for instance, they might want to draw a picture of an animal that they have seen and will want to find out more about their experience, possibly using technology or books.
You may also want to vary their outdoor experiences by looking for stars at night, hunting for sea, cliffs, rockpools, hills, birds, lakes, trains, planes or simply follow their lead to find what is interesting for them.
Words of advice
It is important to take your child’s interests into account when it comes to learning activities. If your child shows an interest in an activity, they will naturally want to engage more in it. If you encourage your child to take part in an activity that they don’t have an interest in or are not ready for, it can feel daunting and discourage them from wanting to partake in activities later down the line.
When engaging your child in learning activities, it is also important to consider the environment that you are sharing. If the area that you are learning in together is crowded and cluttered, it can be distracting visually and the same stands for a noisy environment, your child will probably find it hard to focus in a noisy place. Having a quiet and calm place at home to learn in can be great for your child, even if it is just a small corner of a room!
 Urban Child Institute. (2012). The Importance of Stimulating a Child’s Vision. Available: http://www.urbanchildinstitute.org/articles/research-to-policy/research/the-importance-of-stimulating-a-childs-vision.
 Harry Wachs. (1981). Visual Implications of Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development. Available: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/002221948101401007?journalCode=ldxa.
 Shankar, S., Robertson, B-A., & Bobier, W.R. (2007). Parent/Caregive Narrative: Vision Development (0 - 6 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 5. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development
 Bremner JG, Slater AM, Johnson SP. Perception of object persistence: The origins of object permanence in infancy. Child Development Perspectives. 2014;9(1):7-13. doi:10.1111/cdep.12098
 Dr. Russel Lazarus. (2020). Vision Development and Milestones. Available: https://www.optometrists.org/childrens-vision/guide-to-visual-development/guide-to-vision-development/.