Figuring Out Figure Ground

Nov 1 / KoolMinds Online
Check out the image to your left. 

Do you see a white vase? 
Do you see 2 black faces against a white background? Do you see all of it all at once?
The ability to see both, as well as the negative space means you have strong figure ground perception. 

If you can't see all aspects described, then your figure ground perception could maybe use some work.
What is figure ground? It is a person's ability to differentiate between an object and it's background. 

The figure-ground concept is a cognitive function that allows a person to direct their attention to a figure rather than its background. In the ADHD realm, figure ground is more about blocking out the noise and distraction to focus on the subject at hand. 

The Psychology of it All 

" The whole is more (or different) than the sum of its parts."

The concept of figure-ground perception came out of the field of Gestalt psychology. Gestalt is the German word for shape or form.  The Gestalt theory of perception theorizes that we make sense of the world by taking separate and distinct elements and combining them into a unified whole. Think about it like this... 

Imagine you're walking down a busy city sidewalk. You notice all the things around you - a person walking to your left, a pigeon flying above, cars braking at stoplights, a glass building on your right, a skyscraper in the distance, a construction cone in your path, a puddle on the ground - put all these things together and your brain recognizes that you're in a city. But suppose you only saw a pigeon flying overhead or the pigeon and a person - are you in a park? or a suburban neighborhood? or a city? It's a little harder when you don't have all the information, right? Our brain uses all the clues around us to help fill in the gaps. Some of those clues are size differences - is the skyscraper small or huge? Small means it's far away and huge means it's pretty close. Contrast, blurriness and separation between the figure and background are some of the other factors we use as clues. 

Gestalt theories are commonly taught and used in artistic settings to help build a better design but they apply in ALL aspects of our environment - looking for a pencil on a messy desk, knowing how soon to put your hand up for the baseball coming at you, recognizing patterns, flower arranging, lego building, engineering projects,  theater productions, etc. You name it, there is probably some way that Figure Ground applies in that scenario. 

So what does it look like to struggle in that area? 

Examples of Poor Figure Ground Perception

  • Problems scanning a page of text for information
  • Has a hard time finding the objects in a "hidden picture" game or activity
  • Difficult time reading when text is too small or crammed
  • Struggles to pick out details in an image or specific words on a page

There are plenty of ways to practice Figure Ground perception! Here are just a few ideas to incorporate this crazy concept into your everyday life. 

- When reading, challenge yourself or your kids to pick out certain words. "Can you find all the times Dr. Seuss uses the word 'not' in Green Eggs and Ham?" (Hint: it's A LOT)
Coloring - Challenge your kids to color one or the other (figure or ground (background)). Use coloring books, drawing on a blank page, or even comic books can be useful here. 
Get Outdoors - There are limitless ways to work on F/G outside - an animal in the woods, a nut on a branch, a building a city, a bird in the sky, the list goes on and on! 
Puzzles - Word searches or finding the hidden shapes are great ways to practice figure ground. For a more subjective and creative approach try one of our family's favorite road trip games of finding shapes in the clouds. Bonus points for this one because it exercises conceptualization as well! 

Figure Ground & ADHD

Most of that works on the visual part of Figure Ground. When it comes to ADHD, it looks a little bit different. As mentioned above, it's more about drowning out the distractions and focusing on the task at hand. Our world is full of attention grabbing objects like advertisements, people moving, music or our phones and devices. The distractions will never go away but the ability to cut through the noise and focus on what we're doing can make a real difference in our lives. 

A simple way to work on this at home is to try standing in front of your child's favorite show playing in the background and giving them instructions to execute a specific task. Can they focus solely on you and remember what they were asked to do, even with the distraction? 

If not, work on it together! Start with something silly and make it a game to pique their interest. Then you can work up to more meaningful tasks, like chores and homework. 

Along with those ideas, our Cognitive Program uses specific exercises to build Figure Ground with our students who struggle with ADHD. Having them do a certain task like a memory chart, and then throwing in distractions is a useful tactic to help them remember to focus on what they're doing while ignoring distractions. 

Click below to learn more about our Cognitive Program and how we work on Focus Ground and other cognitive skills for learning. 
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Don't forget to download our free Thanksgiving activity sheets to practice your skills!  

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