Child Development: 5 things you need to know about… object permanence


When do children start to understand something still exists even though they can’t see or hear it – and what activities will they enjoy doing at this time? By Ruth Thomson

1. WHAT IT IS

Object permanence means a child understands that things, and people, still exist even when they cannot be seen or heard. It is an important developmental milestone and a concept that was pioneered by child psychologist Jean Piaget.

You can gauge a child’s understanding of object permanence by their reaction when you hide a favourite toy. If the child appears confused or upset and doesn’t look for the toy, then they haven’t yet grasped the concept. If, however, they start looking for the toy then they know that it still exists and they want it back!

Another indicator is a child’s reaction when you leave the room. If the baby doesn’t respond or settles quickly, they don’t understand object permanence. If, however, they become upset and want to follow you, then they have an understanding of the concept.

2. WHY IT MATTERS

In the first few months of life, babies inhabit a world of the ‘here and now’. While they recognise some familiar faces, their memory development is in its earliest stages and they explore their world through movement and the senses.

Understanding object permanence signals an important development in an infant’s working memory, as it means they can now form, and retain, a mental representation of an object. It also marks the beginning of a baby’s understanding of abstract concepts.

Where previously babies inhabited a world that consisted only of things they could see, hear and touch, they now enter a world that is more permanent.

With an understanding of object permanence, babies are able to explore and interact in more complex ways.

3. WHEN IT DEVELOPS

According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, object permanence is one of the most significant aspects of development in the sensorimotor phase (from birth to two).

Piaget believed object permanence develops in infants at about eight months old. However, research has since demonstrated children as young as four months can understand the concept.

4. ACTIVITIES LINKED TO IT

Games, books and activities in which things are hidden and then reappear are ideal for developing children’s understanding of object permanence, and babies and toddlers will derive enormous pleasure from finding hidden objects. Here are some ideas to try:

Play peek-a-boo. Vary the game as children’s awareness develops – for example, pop out from behind your hands, instead of simply removing them from your face.

Play ‘hide and seek’. Cover and uncover small objects with a scarf or piece of fabric. Or hide a toy and encourage the child to find it. Always show the child the object first, talk through what you are going to do and perhaps encourage the child to start hunting by looking for the toy under some cushions.

Share action or finger rhymes that involve objects vanishing and then reappearing, such as ‘Two little dicky birds’ and ‘This little piggy went to market’.

Provide containers with small objects in them. The child will enjoy ‘experimenting’, taking things out and putting them back in.

Share simple pop-up toys and baby books, as well as books with things hidden under flaps.

Support children’s interest in ‘posting’ objects. For example, provide a range of small objects to ‘post’ down large cardboard tubes.

5. SEPARATION ANXIETY

Object permanence often coincides with separation anxiety. For young babies, an adult is soon ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when they leave the room. However, that often changes at about eight months old.

At this age, a child not only grasps object permanence but also has developed a strong attachment to the significant adults in their lives. Nap and bedtimes as well as drop-offs at nurseries can become problematic, with many parents reporting that their babies start to show high levels of anxiety when they leave.

Developing strong bedtime and goodbye routines can help alleviate this anxiety, and most babies will eventually learn through experience that their parents will always return.

MORE INFORMATION

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html

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