What are visuals? Visual aids are a set of individual pictures that communicate a meaning to someone through the use of an image. Otherwise known as visual aids or just visuals, it could be a picture of a toilet/ apple/sand tray/story time/a particular emotion – anything! You can use drawn images or you could use photos. The important thing is that you are using a picture that someone can easily recognise to illustrate an item. These usually have the word written underneath as well, to help encourage early reading.

Why visuals?

As early years professionals, you will be aware that the child that knows what is happening in their day, is likely to feel much calmer and less anxious in your setting than the child that doesn’t know. Imagine if someone took you somewhere for the first time and you didn’t know where you were, what you were going to be doing all day, where the toilet is, when (or if) you were going to get fed, and when you get to go home again. And all of that at a very young age. Wouldn’t that be scary? Compare that with knowing where the toilet is, when food is coming, and you can see that eventually you are going to go home – it’s not hard to realise that this is bound to make a small child feel a lot more settled.

So how do we communicate to children what is going to happen in their day and where everything is? We can’t just write a list since the majority of children in an early years settings are unable to read yet. Using words is great but can be overwhelming, easy to forget and, for some children, hard to process. Using clear visual images around your setting provides a great way of supporting children to become as calm and settled as possible, and therefore reduce anxiety.

One of the very early signs of reading is children being able to recognise familiar signs and logos around them. Many children will recognise the ‘Asda’ sign as they arrive at the supermarket car park – not because they can read the individual letters, but because they recognise the big, bold, green group of letters and they correlate this with the car park and big building full of food! Likewise, clear visual images in your setting can quickly become familiar to children, allowing them to have some control in their day by knowing what is happening and where things are.

Different uses
  • To demonstrate routine

A visual timetable is a set of visual symbols displayed one after the other, showing what is going to happen in the day. A display such as this is great for showing children what is going to be happening in their day. This is really helpful for all children but vital for those that feel anxious because they don’t know what the day will hold. Visuals allow children to see what they are going to be doing next, plus, if there is a change to the usual routine, visuals offer the added bonus of helping a child to process that change.

  • To label areas and resources

As you will already know, it is essential that a child feels comfortable in your setting in order for them to flourish. By labelling the areas, drawers, cupboards, boxes, toilet etc. then children will be able to learn their way around their environment, allowing them some control over what they can access. This is also vital for tidy-up-time – you can’t expect children to tidy up effectively if they can’t see where things go.

  • To allow children to be themselves

Giving children access to visuals allows them to communicate with you where they otherwise may have been unable to. A chart displaying emotions symbols helps children identify how they are feeling and, in time, will hopefully allow them to share this with you.

  • To give instructions

Visual images are a great way to show children a step-by-step guide of how to do something without you having to constantly remind them with verbal instructions. This lets them learn a new skill and provides them with a reminder as they practise that skill. Hand washing is a great example of this. Have visual images above a sink showing a child each step of washing their hands. They will then be able to follow these at their own pace rather than depending on an adult showing them, thereby encouraging independence as well as good hygiene.

  • To support children with additional needs

Visual aids are a great support for all children, but for some children with additional needs, they are vital. Children on the autism spectrum can find it particularly hard to process language. Visuals offer a consistent way for children to communicate without the added complications of tone of voice and different choice of words etc. which are aspects of communication that some people struggle with. Such children may benefit from having their own particular set of visual aids that is specific to their routine and their needs. This could be in the form of a personal visual timetable; visual symbols on a keyring or in a communication book; or a board that displays what is happening ‘now’ and ‘next’. For the non-verbal child, giving them visuals allows them to share their wants and needs with you, such as ‘drink’ or ‘toilet’.

It’s important to emphasise that these visuals are by no means intended to replace spoken language. Modelling and encouraging speech are vital to a young child’s language development. These are intended to support spoken language and are often a first step for children before understanding or using spoken words.

It’s worth considering that visual symbols are not the only way to provide visual learning in your setting. Other visuals such as sand timers, puppets and Makaton signing are great ways to provide even more visual clues to the young learner.


About the author

Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.

Website: www.createvisualaids.com     Email: gina@createvisualaids.com

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