The importance of object permanence on babies.

By Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., 1.10.19

There are simple ways to observe your child’s play and interact with them to create lasting effects to their motor and cognitive development.

Renowned Swiss child psychologist, Jean Piaget was the first to recognize the significance of observing child play. By simply watching and recording (or journaling) the play behavior of his children, he developed a sophisticated theory of child development, focusing, in particular, on cognitive (intellectual) development.

According to Piaget, object permanence is the first and perhaps most profound cognitive milestone. This concept refers to the idea that when an object disappears from view, it continues to exist.

What is Object Permanence?

The object permanence concept is important because it is integral to symbolic reasoning, which in turn is essential to language, math, and emotional development–such as attachment or parent-child bonding.

This makes sense when you think that in order for a child to describe something, he must have a way of mentally representing things. In terms of attachment, a child must be able to discern strangers from familiar persons and must understand that the important people in his/her world have a permanence to them.

One cannot form a stable relationship with someone unless one has a mental scheme or representation of that person as stable as well as dependable! It is by no coincidence that true attachment coincides with a more sophisticated understanding of the permanence of objects.

The Development of Object Permanence

Notice that prior to four months, your baby will not search for an object if it is placed under a cup or cloth. At around 4 to 8 months your child will try to retrieve a partially covered object that he is engaged with.

He will continue to fail to look for a completely hidden object, even if he was eagerly engaged with it.

Between 8-12 months, clearer signs of your child’s burgeoning object concept are apparent. This is also the period that developmentalists can discern a true sense of attachment (or bonding) between infant and parent.

At this age, peek-a-boo is a good activity because it capitalizes on your baby’s great interest in your face. It is also a good way of relieving separation anxiety. As your baby sees the repetition of your face appearing and disappearing, he understands that separations are not final and that there is a predictable return of your treasured face and presence.

It is not until 18–24 months that your child is fully capable of mentally representing an object. At this age, he fully understands that objects have permanence, and he will take great enjoyment in locating objects in elaborate games of hide and seek. Notice that this is also when language ability explodes.

Advancing Object Permanence Ability

From birth on, stimulate your baby’s object concept by having your baby track your face back and forth and later by playing peek-a-boo. Cover a hand mirror with a cloth and let baby find her reflection or have baby cover her own face and let you find her. Raise the bar by “hiding” partially covered objects, then fully covered ones.

When your baby can crawl, hide-and-seek capitalizes on their motor and cognitive skills. Crawl around on the floor and let baby find you. Mix in sound as a clue for your baby to find you– this is multisensory learning. Cover a table with a cloth for a great hideaway.

Please note that as with any interesting and important activity, your baby will want to repeat and repeat and repeat. Follow her actions, and don’t impose your concept of boredom on the activity. Repetition is how your baby forms the neural wiring or connections to fully establish a concept in their brain.

Pat Blackwell, Ph.D. is a licensed developmental psychologist at Pelts, Kirkhart & Associates. She also writes our award-winning “Learning Years” column. Check out Pat’s latest article ‘Helping Children Cope when a Child Care Provider Departs.’

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