Inside: Your ultimate guide to visual discrimination activities for toddlers and preschoolers. Why it’s critical for development & fun activity ideas that are easy to set up at home.

I have this fear.

That when my preschooler is old enough to start kindergarten, I’m going to excitedly drop him off. Nervous about his first day, missing him, and just brimming with all of the feelings.

But then, out of the blue, I’m going to get a call from his teacher.

And they are going to tell me that my son doesn’t know basic stuff. Stuff that I was supposed to teach him.

Why doesn’t he know how to write his name? How does he not have every letter of the alphabet memorized? Can he even skip count in 2s…backwards? How much screen time was I giving him?

That his academic career is doomed. He’ll never catch up. Because I didn’t do the right things.

Of course, this is absurd. But my Pinterest-loving mom brain is full of doubt and guilt. Making me think I’m behind on my son’s learning activities. And I need to create beautiful activities or else my toddler will drop out of school in academic failure.

Is there any truth in it?

Let’s talk about what skills your toddler and preschooler actually need to be learning to prep for school. And some easy ways you can create visual discrimination activities at home. These are the activities that are going to be all the prep your preschooler needs to do things like learn to read and do math.

Ready to learn more?

Note: Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means I might earn a small commission if you love something as much as I do. But I only recommend what I actually like myself.

What is Visual Discrimination?

Visual discrimination is just a fancy way of saying we can visually look at something and tell if it’s the same or different as something else. 

Get your little ones ready for kindergarten with these hands-on learning activities that boost visual discrimination and visual memory skills. From pre-reading activities to exciting games, your kids will love these engaging cognitive activities. Whether you're a stay-at-home parent or a teacher looking for new ideas, this post has everything you need to help your preschooler thrive. Don't miss out on this opportunity to make learning fun!

Visual discrimination definition 

Specifically, it’s when we use visual information to see subtle differences and similarities in objects, symbols and shapes.  And it’s a process of evaluating those things based on size, shape, color, pattern, position and texture. 

It’s how we start to understand the world around us. By noticing differences in things we can start to classify information, group it, understand it, compare it, and use it to help us.

Why is Practicing Visual Discrimination Important?

what is visual discrimination in everyday activities like brushing teeth

Visual Discrimination in Everyday Life

On a basic level, we need visual discrimination to make it through our day.  To understand differences between objects, words and concepts. 

To know the difference between different types of clothes so we can get dressed, is an example of visual discrimination. 

To see the difference between a toothbrush and a hairbrush. (Imagine the horror.) 

To know which side of the street to drive on.

To be able to pick out items at the grocery store, to be able to find the ingredient you’re looking for in the fridge, and to cook a meal (that’s edible). 

(See what I mean? Your child is probably already practicing these skills every day. Not the driving thing. I hope.)

visual discrimination in education

Visual Discrimination in Learning

Not only does visual discrimination make it possible to function in life, but it’s also critical for your child’s learning path, and to help them with their problem-solving skills.

Learning to Read and Write

Visual discrimination skills are necessary pre-reading skills for your toddler to learn to read and write. Visual discrimination helps do things like:

  • See the difference between letters like “b” and “d” (but really all letters)
  • Figuring out where one word ends and the next begins 
  • Decoding words in reading
  • Be able to see similarities in letters in different fonts

Learning Numbers, Counting & Math

Similar to the alphabet, we need visual discrimination to be able to see the difference between numbers (the written version). But also to see the difference between objects to be able to count them. If everything looked the same, how would we see there are multiples? And to start to group them?

Building on numbers and counting, we need visual discrimination in order to build math skills and to start understanding more math concepts like geometry, and being able to see the differences in shapes. How an acute triangle is different from an obtuse triangle. 

visual perception games

Visual Processing vs Visual Perception

Not to get too into the weeds, but our overall visual motor skills are made up of several areas.  The first is visual processing skills in the brain – this is the activity of how our eyes physically track, focus and gather information. One aspect of visual processing is that it makes it possible for us to actually see something.

The second part is visual perception, or our brain’s processing and understanding of the visual information that is gathered from visual processing. And visual discrimination is one of the processes that make up visual perceptual skills.

The importance in this distinction is that if your child is having problems distinguishing patterns – first check to see if the problem is actually related to visual processing issues.  That is – make sure they can actually see the objects/patterns (their visual acuity), before trying to diagnose that they can understand them.  This means a trip to the ophthalmologist to see if they just need glasses to help with their vision. 

Types of Visual Discrimination

For young children, there are a few types of visual discrimination skills to practice. By giving your child activities that involve these important skills, you’re helping them build visual memory that will set them up for success in school. Here are some different types of visual discrimination that are important for primary school.

color sorting activities

3D Object Recognition

Kids need to be able to tell objects apart – gauging them based on features like size, color, shape, and texture. To help your child practice this (plus work on their fine motor skills) give them different objects to sort, classify or arrange.  Some ideas in the activities section below are specifically around 3D objects.

shape recognition activities

Shape Recognition

Playing with blocks gives a great introduction to the different kinds of shapes. And kids should practice to be able to distinguish the difference between 2D shapes on paper to understand  their different features.

color sorting games and activities

Color Recognition

To be able to distinguish colors, they need lots of exposure through language use and hands-on manipulation. Describe colors when you see them, in your everyday chats. And you can start to work on color sorting activities with toddlers. 

It takes time though, so don’t stress if they don’t get it right most of the time at first. I can’t tell you how many times my toddler very confidently held up something and exclaimed “this GREEN one!” – while holding something purple.

pattern recognition activities

Pattern Recognition in Pictures

The ability to see different patterns is where it starts to set the foundation for later seeing patterns in letters to be able to read, then write. Picture pattern recognition involves being able to use visual skills  to see 2 side by side images and see if they are the same or not. 

word recognition activities

Letters & Words

As kids get older they’ll start to see differences between letters, to see that they aren’t all the same. And continue to build on this knowledge of identifying letters, and then seeing them as words.

sequencing activity for kids
Grab a set of free plant life cycle sequencing cards


Sequencing is the understanding that things go in a certain order.  This could be either by looking at a repeating pattern of shapes and figuring out which one comes next based on the pattern. 

Or it could be putting things in the order from smallest to largest.

It could also be understanding the logical process that happens.  For example, the steps to baking a cake: measure ingredients, mix them, bake them.

boy toddler cooking in the kitchen making a mess on the counter with flour

Best Ways To Practice Visual Discrimination

Use these tips to help make the best of practicing visual discrimination with your little learner.

1. Hands-On Learning

The best way for toddlers and preschoolers to learn is by doing in a hands-on way. This means tactile manipulation, exploring with their hands, and through touch and feel. 

It means having physical objects, or it can even be printouts, but your child moves them around.  Sorts them into baskets.  Finds them from hidden locations around the house. 

2. Don’t Use Worksheets

What this doesn’t mean – is using worksheets.  Worksheets are one dimensional and it’s harder to grasp the concepts. They also typically rely on the child to know how to write in order to be able to complete them – which isn’t something they are ready for at this age.

3. Make it Fun

At this age, the goal is to play. So, if you want to work in a learning activity, turn it into a game.  It doesn’t have to be complex or difficult, but it needs to be something your kid enjoys doing.  

Because if it feels hard and difficult, guess what? They won’t be signing up for this learning thing again anytime soon.

So keep it light, model (don’t force) the “rules” of the game, and get ready to throw out most of the rules as you go. Make it about the process – if your kid is curious about some of the materials, take a detour and explore.  Have fun, keep it silly.  

Remember your goal: help your child create positive associations around learning. 

Visual Discrimination Activities by Age

So, first – your kiddo is getting lots of visual discrimination practice in their daily lives, but if you want to give them extra practice, I have good news – it’s easy to set up fun activities for your little learners to build good visual discrimination skills. 

These include pattern games – fun ways for your little learner to match patterns. And a lot of these are free activities you can do with stuff from around your house.  Or through free printables you can find online. Here are some more visual skills activities for more ideas.

Toddler Activities

object sorting game

Object Sorting

Gather up different objects and have your toddler sort them by 1 attribute.  Like, a bunch of colored pompoms and sort them by color. In the beginning, it’s good to keep visual perception game like this limited to just one sorting attribute (i.e. color, not color and size).

visual discrimination activity

Which One Doesn’t Belong?

Create sets of objects (like a banana, a yellow crayon and a pen) and ask your child which one doesn’t belong. (The pen! Because it isn’t yellow. Or maybe it’s the banana because it doesn’t write.)

Sorting object game for kids

Sort Household Objects

Round up things from around the house to sort.  Like Legos – sort them by color, size or type. Start with just 1 attribute first (like color). Sort silverware. Sort playing cards by suit. Sort a pile of coins by type.

memory matching games for kids

Matching Game

Play a game of Memory or other matching games. Here are 5 different ways you can play Memory, including a simplified version specifically for toddlers who aren’t ready for turn-taking or complex rules.These visual memory games focus on pattern recognition to be able to successfully make the match.

spot the difference puzzle

Find the Difference Games

This consists of 2 nearly identical pictures side by side that are almost identical, except 1 or 2 things.  Your kiddo has to closely compare the visual images to spot the difference. 

butterfly perception game

1 and 2 Part Puzzles

You can start with 1 part jigsaw puzzles and work your way up. 1 part puzzles are a great activity to start to introduce your toddler to pattern matching and the concept of puzzling. Then you can move to 2 part puzzles – either wooden or printable. Either way, they are still getting the tactile hands-on experience.

Jigsaw Puzzles

My son played with 1 part puzzles for a long time before moving to 4 part puzzles (which were a challenge for a bit). And to my surprise, after that he quickly jumped next to a 24 piece puzzle! 

We talk through exactly what he was seeing on each piece, and the strategy of putting them together. It’s also a great way to use positional words (i.e. over, under, above)  in a meaningful way (the best way to learn) – when your kiddo is motivated to understand what you mean.

If you find you have a puzzler on your hands, I highly recommend Mudpuppy puzzles – they have beautiful designs, high quality pieces that snap together well, and are cheaper than other similar brands. 

sequencing activities for kids

Sequencing Puzzles

These are puzzles that your young learner puts in order. For example, putting objects in order from smallest to largest.  Or you could draw or print a series of actions (like making a sandwich) and ask your child to put them in order from start to finish. You can also download this free 4 step sequencing printable of a plant life cycle.

pattern recognition games

Color Sorting

There are so many fun ways to do color sorting with household objects. One easy and cheap way is to make a DIY color sorter, by painting 4 different colors on the top of an empty oatmeal container lid. Then punching slits through it – 1 for each color.  Then give your  toddler popsicle sticks (that match the 4 colors) and show them how to push each one through the matched color. This is a fantastic fine motor activity too.

After object color sorting, you can progress to picture color sorting. Just print photos that feature a predominant color, and sort into baskets! This is super fun to DIY yourself, or you can check out my color nature cards printable, for an easy done-for-you set of cards ready to print. These are great because you can turn this into a toddler busy book activity too, when you need a quick activity in a pinch.

nature walk scavenger hunt

Nature Walk Scavenger Hunt

A fun way to practice visual discrimination skills is to get outdoors and find things in nature. Take a walk outside with a picture list of things to spot. This builds spatial awareness by being able to identify the correct object in their surroundings. 

Create a DIY picture checklist by adding some photos of simple items to look for, and adding a checkbox to mark when they find it.  

Montessori 3 part card activities

Montessori 3 Part Card Image Matching

Montessori 3 part nomenclature cards are also a great way for young learners to practice visual discrimination. 3 part cards are designed to grow with your child, because they come in 3 parts (image card, text card and control card) that are used differently at different ages as your child progresses.

At the toddler age you’d focus on matching the identical images from the image card and control card. The added benefit is that your child is also building their vocabulary at the same time. 

3 part cards come in a huge range of topics, so you can pick your kid’s favorite. Like space & planets, wild jungle animals, or shapes and colors. There really are endless choices.

shape pattern games

Shape Pattern Games

A fun idea for recognizing shapes is to make it relatable to real life. These Shapes with Examples Cards feature 15 different shapes, and each card has real-life examples on it. 

A fun sensory activity to do with these is to add shape objects you have around the house into a sensory bin.  Then have your child explore the bin and pull them out and match them to the correct card.

Preschooler Activities

Play Dominoes

Picture dominoes is a fun game that’s great for preschoolers. This is a Dinosaur Dominoes version, but you can get them with any theme. The goal is to keep putting a dinosaur domino next to a matching dinosaur to keep the line going.

I spy games

I Spy Games

I Spy is a wonderful visual discrimination activity because it’s a perception game.

There are a few different ways to play I Spy. The simplest is the classic verbal version – “I spy….something yellow” and your child tries to find it within the room. 

You can also play picture versions – by using something like the printable shapes cards which can be a checklist of things to look for. Just print out a second set of cards and cut out each individual object.  Then you can hide those pieces either around the room for an I Spy Scavenger Hunt, or hide them in a sensory bin for an I Spy Sensory Bin. 

letter recognition activities

Montessori 3 Part Card Letter Matching

During the preschool years, it’s time to bring out the Montessori 3 part cards again. (See above for toddler activities you can do with the 3 part cards.) 

For preschool age, you can start using the label/text card to match the letters on the control card. At this point, they aren’t reading, but just starting to understand that letters are distinct symbols that are different from each other.  And ultimately, they have different meanings. 

Another common struggle at this age is that similar letters look alike (p and b, p and q).  And activities like this help build your child’s ability to see the differences.

visual perception games

Uppercase & Lowercase Letter Matching

Another pre-reading skill is to play a slightly different game to match uppercase and lowercase letters. This is a great way to practice letter recognition.

Create a game by drawing out either upper or lower case letters on a piece of paper.  Then use a corresponding letter set on a learning manipulative – like a letter coin, or letter flashcard.  Then have them match the upper and lower letters together.

pattern games

Symmetry Puzzles

Symmetry puzzles are another great way to build not only strong visual discrimination skills, but also start to learn the basics of geometry by understanding symmetry. 

I find butterflies are an excellent way to study this because kids love beautiful, colorful butterflies. These butterfly symmetry cards have a butterfly card that is cut in half and your child matches one side to the other for an engaging pattern recognition game.

visual discrimination activities

Pattern Continuation

This game of “What’s the next item in the pattern?” is great because your child has to look and understand sequencing to be able to predict the next item.

Set up a game with objects that you have identical multiples of.  For example, blocks. Start with a simple pattern – blue, red, blue, red – then ask your child to put down the block that comes next.

pattern recognition games

Picture to Detail Matching

Detail pattern matching is also a fun game because your kid gets to work with engaging images and examine their detail to make the match.

Activities like the bug matching printable or the crab matching cards include a set of images (i.e.image of a bug), and then a matching detail close-up card. You just set out a set of the image cards, then have them match the close-up card.

color pattern games for kids

Color Pattern Games

At the preschool age, you can explore more color matching activities using printables with fun and engaging pictures. 

This color matching set includes 3 different color activities using hands-on manipulatives.

Elementary Age

go fish card game

Play Go Fish

This is a great age to start playing more formal turn-taking games like Go Fish. Go Fish is the perfect visual discrimination activity because you describe exactly the object you need.  Or you hear a description and have to find the target within your set of cards.

You can easily make a game out of Go Fish with any printable set of cards. Like a set of alphabet cards or an ABC chart to practice letter recognition, or number cards to practice digits and counting.

Just print 5 copies of the cards to create a deck, and you’re ready to play. If you need a refresher on the rules of Go Fish! grab a copy of my free Activity Guide which has all of the details.

Spot It! Game

Kids LOVE this Spot It! game which includes a deck of cards. Each card has several objects on it. The goal is to compare 2 cards at once, and there will be exactly 1 object that is the same on both cards.  The first person to find the same object wins that round.

number recognition game

Word and Letter Recognition Games

This is a fantastic learning activity but also a good way to use your old magazines and junk mail! Plus it’s a free activity. Ask your child to scan through magazines or the newspaper for a target letter, word, or number, then circle it.

letter recognition games

Work on a simple letter, number or word search puzzle. This site has a bunch of word search puzzles, organized by difficulty based on your child’s grade.

vowel consonant recognition activities

Letter and Word Sorting

Use alphabet cards and sight words flashcards to create sorting games. For example, ask your child to sort alphabet cards into consonants and vowels. Or you can use sight word cards to sort into word types – like, words that start with the letter T, adjectives, words with 5 letters, words that rhyme, etc.

sight word sensory bin

Sight Word Sensory Bin

Another fun hands-on literacy activity is to create a sight word sensory bin. Hide a set of sight word cards (like the plain text cards found in this word card set), and have your child find them and match them to the sight word sentence card that contains that same word.

number pattern games

Number Pattern Games

Create a sequencing activity by continuing the pattern, by using numbers. For example, you could create a pattern of even numbers by setting out number flashcards and ask your child to put down the next card in the pattern. It’s a great way to practice skip counting too.

Want More Learning Activity Ideas?

Hopefully these activities give you lots of ideas of fun games to help develop your little learner’s visual discrimination skills. Here are some ideas to check out next:

Explore 5 different ways to play Memory, or you can download my free Activity Guide that gives you 15 creative ways to play with flashcards.

Check out this nature walk scavenger hunt game. If your little one loves matching games, take it outside! Discover and find items in nature and check them off as you find them. This picture checklist is designed for preschoolers and toddlers with easy-to-find items.

Subscribe to my newsletter. I send one play activity idea, once a week, giving you some serious inspiration of what to do with your toddler or preschooler that week. I send out freebies and special treats, all for my email list.

Discover some free printables. Download and print some free activities—arts & crafts projects, coloring books, activity guides, fun holiday printables and more!

Read the rest of my blog. It’s home to lots of play & learn activities, arts & crafts projects, activities to build your kiddo’s cognitive skills, and Montessori activity ideas and info.

Shop my printable activities. Explore nature themed printable activities for your toddler and preschooler to help them learn through play. All hands-on activities — the healthiest way for your young kiddo to learn. And designed with watercolor artwork, so you’ll love adding it to your beautiful home.

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