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The Importance of Assessing Visual-Perceptual and Visual-Spatial Skills in Physical Education, SPED & Adapted PE

Updated: May 1

Lynne Kenney, PsyD & Alice Li, BS Boston College

Recently an occupational therapist who attended our executive function workshop in Toronto, Canada wrote to ask how I view the difference between visual-perceptual and visual-spatial skills. This got me reflecting and looking into the science.

In clinical practice, I usually view visual-perceptual skills as the ability to orient in space, interact with objects such as balls, bean bags, cones, and physical objects, and the ability to manage one’s body on objects such as the Bosu, yoga ball, or balance beam. These actions require interacting with the visual horizon, core strength, and balance which can be complicated for many students.

Visual-Perceptual Skills

In Occupational Therapy, our colleagues have standardized tools to assess visual-perceptual skills. In psychology, we generally do not. The new NIH Toolbox 3 has some motor skill assessments, I have yet to study, so these might help us in the future. I usually rely on qualitative observations when making note of visual-perceptual skills. These observations include tempo, pacing, and timing when a child bounces, throws, or catches balls of various sizes from ping pong balls to large yoga balls.

These are great qualitative assessment methods because children love throwing yoga balls and ball bouncing is an effective way to help children feel comfortable in the assessment environment. It is easy to see how the child uses strength, tempo, and collaboration when bouncing balls. I also look at balance skills, both static and dynamic, using a simple yoga sequence that children can easily follow along. 

In the research literature, visual-perceptual skills often refer to the ability to interpret and make sense of visual information received through the eyes. These skills involve various processes, including visual closure (mentally completing incomplete visual stimuli), visual discrimination (recognizing differences and similarities in visual stimuli), visual form constancy (recognizing objects despite changes in their size, shape, or orientation), visual memory (recalling previously seen images or patterns), and visual sequencing (organizing visual information in a specific order). In physical education and in SPED visual-perceptual, skills are often considered in relation to the ability to interact with objects such as pencils, paper, smart boards, balls, bean bags, racquets etc.

Visual-Spatial Skills

Visual-spatial skills are a different skill set, one we acutely attend to in students with ASD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, and ADHD.

Visual-spatial skills encompass a broader range of abilities related to understanding and manipulating spatial relationships and visualizing objects or shapes in space. These skills involve tasks such as mentally rotating objects, understanding maps and directions, interpreting graphs and charts, and navigating through physical spaces. Visual-spatial skills are essential for activities such as architecture, geometry, navigation, puzzle-solving, sports, and tasks of daily living, such as driving a car. 

In psychology, we have many assessment tools to collect data on visual-spatial skills. Some of the tasks I find informative include the following Creyos tasks: Paired Associates, Rotations, Polygons, Spatial Planning, Odd One Out, and Monkey Ladder.

On the NIH Toolbox, I look qualitatively at visual-spatial and visual-tracking skills when I administer tasks such as the Dimensional Card Sort, Flanker, Pattern Comparison Speed Test, and the Picture Sequence Memory Test. 

Often, I am observing how the student approaches each task: 

  • Are they systematic in their approach to the tasks?

  • Do they scan from left to right? 

  • Do they scan from top to bottom?

  • Do they scan inconsistently in varying directions from trial to trial?

  • Do they close or blink their eyes while scanning?

  • Do their eyes shake while they are scanning?

  • Do they shake their head or move in a manner designed to re-orient their vision?

  • Do they look sideways at the stimuli?

  • Do they move very close or far away as they participate in the tasks?

  • Do they say out loud that a task is easy when they are consistently making errors?

  • When distinguishing geometric objects do they miss some details?

  • Do they have difficulty identifying the differences in shapes and colors?

While both visual-perceptual and visual-spatial skills involve processing visual information, they differ in their specific focus and the types of tasks they encompass. Visual-perceptual skills primarily involve the interpretation, organization, and interaction with visual stimuli, whereas visual-spatial skills involve mentally understanding spatial relationships and manipulating objects in space. 

These skills often overlap and complement each other in various cognitive tasks and activities. Both visual-perceptual and visual-spatial skills are important to assess and teach in physical education, SPED, and adapted PE.


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