Object permanence is a major cognitive leap for our little ones - it marks the emergence of mental representation. The reason that this newfound skill is so exciting is that it means our babies can now form, retain and recall a version of reality inside their own minds. They understand that even though they can’t see the cucumber underneath the coconut, it is still there. They have an idea or image of that inside their mind. Object permanence marks the beginning of a baby’s understanding of abstract concepts.
There is a bit of controversy in academic circles about just how early this ability develops. Piaget, one of the first researchers to write about this, felt that it didn’t emerge until ‘the second half of the first year’ or around 8 months old. Other researchers have challenged this claim, suggesting that babies develop object permanence as young as 3 months old.
The real challenge with so much of developmental research is that babies can’t tell us what they understand. Instead, we have to create experiments and tasks that give us clues about what babies understand through their behaviour. Much of the time, babies have a concept of things before they’re able to consistently demonstrate it through their behaviour. For example, we would all agree that long before a baby says the word “Mum” they have a clear idea about who ‘mum’ is.
Regardless as to when most babies demonstrate this skill, the fact that they develop it as early as they do is amazing. It means that before, their world was limited to what they could directly experience, but now the world is their oyster and things have become a whole lot more permanent. Object permanence helps lay the foundation for more complex skills like: language, logic, mathematical reasoning and so much more.
Some fun ways to test and play with your child’s understanding of object permanence include: playing peekaboo, hiding toys inside boxes or under cloths or hide and seek.
References: Piaget 1952; Baillargeon & DeVos 1991