Children’s abilities — focusing on peripheral vision

My previous post addressed children’s cycling abilities. I’d like to take the discussion a bit further here.

A conventional statement about children’s cycling abilities, as expressed on an e-mail list, is:

Children also have less than fully developed peripheral vision and are very poor judges of the speed of automobiles.

Pioneering cycling educator John Forester replied:

Presumably, it depends on the age of the child. Many of us have known children aged seven, who have grown up in cycling families, who cycle in accordance with the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. The ability is there; it just has to be trained. I have taught classes of eight-year-olds who learned to cycle properly in the traffic of two-lane streets in residential areas. I fail to see much point in the peripheral vision worry, because all cyclists have to learn to look at whatever is going to be important; what’s out at the side has little relevance. As for judging the speed and distance (you need to know both) of other traffic, say automobiles, any person has to learn to judge whether or not there is time to make a movement or it will be necessary to wait. I’ve watched the judging skills of eight-year-olds improve as they practice various traffic movements. In my opinion, the people who express the concerns about such mental matters have not had experience in training cyclists; they just measure (or try to measure, or make assumptions based on irrelevant measurements, or …) children without any knowledge of what is actually required for cycling in traffic, and are therefore completely ignorant of how to learn the skills.

I wouldn’t have been as harsh as Forester, but I agree that reliance on data from research into mental or perceptual abilities, without actually measuring cycling performance, misses the mark. Abilities do appear sequentially, as shown for example in this paper. There are studies which show that the acquisition of skills in childhood can be advanced by a couple of years through training. The minimum age to obtain a driver’s license reflects a societal judgment of the maturity necessary to drive safely.

I think, however, that the claim that children of elementary-school age have limited peripheral vision is commonly misstated and misinterpreted. It isn’t that the range of angles of peripheral vision increases — as if a child’s retinas have only a small patch of sensory receptors at the center — “tunnel vision” — which expands over the years. I say this from my own experience.

What is importantly less developed in children is the conscious awareness of the peripheral visual field. It sends too much and too complicated information for the immature or untrained brain to process fully.

I recall a peripheral-vision experiment at school when I was 8 or 9 years old, checking how far to the side I could place my hand before I could no longer perceive the wiggling of my fingers. The angle was the same approximately 90 degrees as it still is 60 years later — except that I could perceive the wiggle but not yet the shape of the hand. From age 3, I rode a tricycle, from age 7, I rode a bicycle and from age 17 I drove a car, and did not fail to notice hazards in the peripheral visual field. Peripheral vision short of full, conscious perception, and like the spatial sense of hearing, serves to draw attention, so the eyes and head turn to focus central vision.

I learned to perceive my peripheral visual field consciously in my twenties. I trained myself by focusing my attention on objects in the peripheral field instead of turning my eyes to look at them. This can look weird in social situations! I undertook most of my training while riding my bicycle. Over a period of a couple of years, I got to where I am as conscious of my peripheral field as my central field, except that the peripheral field is blurrier. I see the entire panorama in front of me at once.

Moreover, the rod cells, sensitive enough even to form an image under starlight, are only in the peripheral visual field. The fovea, at the center of the visual field, has only the color-discerning and sharp-imaging cone cells, which are far less sensitive,. In very dim light, the center of the visual field becomes a blind spot and, to fill it in, the eyes must dart around like those of a person born without cone cells — as described in Dr. Oliver Sacks’s book The Island of the Colorblind. Walking outdoors on a starlit night in an area with dark sky offers a good lesson about visual abilities.

4 responses to “Children’s abilities — focusing on peripheral vision

  1. I learned to sharpen my peripheral vision when I started small game and deer hunting with my stepdad as a teen. It was important to pick up motion, which one did by developing an awareness of peripheral vision, and also by scanning rather than staring. I transferred that to driving and cycling. Seems to work pretty well.

    • Interesting, Khal. Are techniques to improve peripheral vison formalized and taught — among hunters, athletes in team sports, others who need to take in the big picture? I taught myself, with no instruction or mentoring.

  2. I think it might be formalized in some fields. My dad taught me that motion is best picked up with peripheral vision and scanning. Not sure where he got it. He was an 8th grade dropout, so probably learned it by hunting. Heard that too in Bruce Cockburn’s “How I Spent My Fall Vacation”

  3. Oliver Sacks is a keen observer of the human condition, but Richard Feinman pointed out the fallacy of considering as science the type of “clinical research” that suggests that children have undeveloped peripheral vision. As you noticed, despite what “the studies” say, the ultimate truth is the live human experience and that experience is highly individualistic and cannot be predicted by means and distributions calculated from models that may or may not be testing the variable of interest, no matter how well-designed the study.

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