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High-Tech No Substitute for Old-Fashioned Games

What ever happened to pinning the tail on the donkey, dropping clothespins through the neck of a bottle, or walking with a raw egg on a teaspoon – children’s birthday games emphasizing individual and team skills?  They have gone the way of sidewalk roller skates, jump ropes, and board games and replaced by high-tech, computerized activities and canned programs offered at franchise restaurants and other facilities. 

But unfortunately, this modern-day trend is hindering the learning experiences that children require to fully develop visualization and visual processing skills. Visual processing is what enables all of us to respond appropriately – internally and externally — to our surrounding world.  Specifically, it allows the brain to interpret and use sensory information.   In a child, visual processing is intimately associated with the ability to spell and read, distinguish shapes, draw and copy, recognize sequences of numbers and letters, recall symbols and objects, and develop language skills.  Advanced visual processing allows people to see whole concepts and sort through details, to develop a plan, and use predictive abilities by visualizing “what if.”

The majority of signals from the environment come via peripheral receptors in the retina. Much of our peripheral eyesight is activated when we are scanning – subconsciously — for protection. Peripheral eyesight governs our judgment of the speed, size, location, and shape of objects and enables us to have the information needed to strategize and act. In combination with central eyesight, peripheral sight enables us to shift our gaze quickly and accurately – from teacher to classroom screen to notes, for example, or from car dashboard to street signs to traffic, and from tennis ball to net to opposing player.

The retina is composed of brain tissue and, for that reason, serves as an interface between the brain and the external world. More than 120 million receptors in the retina transform the passage of external light into approximately one million electrical signals that travel along communication pathways in the brain. These signals affect and activate various systems at unconscious, subconscious, and conscious levels. Such retinal signals can impact adrenaline production, sleep, and other physiological processes or cause a person to shift posture or move in a certain way.

That is the science but back to vintage games.

Pin-the-tail on the donkey requires good orientation skills, which include spatial and directional judgment. As you, the reader, may remember, a player first looks at a drawing of a donkey minus tail hanging on a wall or door, then is given a tail cutout to hold, blindfolded, spun around several times, and asked to pin that cutout onto the donkey’s backside while remaining blindfolded. The player has to judge, to the best of his/her ability, the location of the drawing and once found, the most appropriate place to pin the tail. A player consistently “way off” the mark most likely has a visual processing problem.

Meanwhile, carrying a raw egg on a teaspoon and passing it to others’ teaspoons without letting the egg fall teaches children balance, posture, teamwork – and patience, while dropping clothespins from a height through the neck of a bottle aids development of fine motor skills and spatial organization.

Certainly, computerized games require eye-ear synchronization and build eye-hand coordination, especially in older children (ages 7, 8, or above). They also enhance fixation ability (as the player must focus attentively on objects appearing on a small monitor). However, clarity of central eyesight and ability to hold the eyes in one position while looking at a three-inch screen are not by themselves sufficient enough visual processing skills to later help an adolescent learn to drive a car; scan grocery shelves, traffic, or a crowd; or perform other functions requiring the constant shifting of eyes in a large area of surrounding space.

Of course, the same technology that has moved children away from 19th and 20th century pastimes so necessary to learning has impacted adult activities as well. How many of us still get together for an evening of bridge, backgammon, even checkers or challenge another to a game of chess – games that require visualization (development of mental pictures), strategy and planning, visual memory, and sequencing? How many of us opt to stimulate our mapping skills by finding a new route to a familiar location rather than driving the same streets over and over again because that is what the car GPS system tells us? In fact, with the coronavirus still with us, we might be spending the majority of our free time simply binging on Netflix rather than on socializing.

Many people tend to live life risk-free, always sitting in the same place at home or buying coffee from the same shop because they are reluctant to try other vendors. And, in so doing, further growth is discouraged, lessening development and expansion of visual processing capabilities.  If one always chooses the chair with a wall to the immediate right, then visual processing is confined to one’s left. Occasionally selecting seating in the middle of a room requires – and activates — peripheral eyesight and eye movement on both sides.  Just changing seats at dinner around your own table can provide the brain with enough novelty and stimulate new adaptive pathways.

Fortunately, scientific advances have given today’s optometrists the tools necessary to  evaluate the functioning of both central and peripheral eyesight separately and in tandem and to prescribe therapeutic eyeglasses that selectively stimulate retinal communication pathways in the brain. Such selective stimulation often can reduce symptoms of head trauma and neurological disorders by rerouting information around damaged areas of the brain or building under-developed retinal processing skills in patients with learning problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or autism spectrum disorder.

At the Mind-Eye Institute, we address individuals’ uniqueness – their preferences and differences – in order to enhance or rebuild visual processing skills and try restoring patients to their full potential.

Now, where is that donkey again?

Deborah Zelinsky, O.D.
Founder, Executive Research Director
Mind-Eye Institute

 

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