Out of Sight Out of Mind: The Development of Object Permanence

Wed, 08/10/2011 - 5:10pm -- Jessica Baudin-...

I am excited to welcome Liesa McKay to our blog! Liesa works as the studio manager at J'Adore Dance as well as an instructor in many of our programs. Liesa has a degree in Neural Psychology. Her background has been very helpful in the development of our Intellidance Babies classes at the studio. Liesa will be the co-author of our book "Baby Brain Play" which we hope to have available for sale next Spring! Thank you, Liesa, for bringing your expertise and writing to Intellidance!

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We’ve all heard the expression, “Out of sight, out of mind”, but what does it really mean? As adults, when an object is “out of sight”, we know that it still exists, even though we can’t see it, or touch it, or hear it. The same cannot be said however, for babies. For the first few months of their lives, when an object is “out of sight”, in their minds, it ceases to exist!

Object permanence is the process that allows children to understand that an object continues to exist when it can’t be seen, touched or heard. It develops in parallel with both the visual, and motor pathways, as both the ability to see and the ability to grasp and reach for objects is key to understanding object permanence.

When babies are first born, their movements are mostly reflexive.  At this stage, infants are not really aware of objects, and so they don’t notice when an object disappears from sight.

Around 4 months of age, the visual system has developed to the point that infants will begin to follow objects with their eyes, a process called eye tracking. However, when a child is shown a toy, they may express delight, but when the toy is taken away, baby still doesn’t seem to care too much. They are still not aware of objects no longer in sight.

Between 4 and 8 months of age, babies are gaining more visual acuity and even more gross motor control and so will begin reaching and grasping for objects. Here is where we can see the beginnings of object permanence develop. As baby begins reaching and grasping for toys, they will also reach for toys and objects that are partially hidden, but not if they are completely obscured. This shows that baby is beginning to recognize that a whole object exists even though only a part of it can be seen.

Between 8 and 12 months of age, memory has developed to the point where babies now have the ability to remember an object. This means that if an object is completely hidden, baby will look for it. For example, baby will look for a toy that has been hidden under a blanket. This is a very exciting stage because baby is beginning to learn that objects, and even people, continue to exist outside of their perceptions. With this milestone however, comes what many parents describe as separation anxiety. Baby now fusses and cries when mom or dad leaves the room, whereas before, baby didn’t really seem to mind when mom & dad were out of sight. This is because, prior to 8 months or so of age, when mom or dad was no longer in sight, baby simply “forgot” that they weren’t there. Now however, baby has begun to understand that people still exist when they can’t see them, and so become upset when they leave. One way to help with this is to simply continue speaking to baby when you need to leave them for a moment. This allows baby to recognize that you are still nearby. You can also play peek-a-boo with baby around walls, from behind the couch etc. This reinforces to baby that while you may be gone, you’re never far and will be back soon!

From 12 to 18 months, children are now able to find an object that has been hidden, retrieved and re-hidden. For example, if you hide a toy under a blanket, retrieve and then hide it in a box, baby will look for the toy both under the blanket, and then in the box. They will change their search behavior if an object is not where they last remembered it, looking in different “normal” locations for the toy.

Around the age of 18 months, it can be said that children fully understand the concept of object permanence. They can create internal pictures of objects that are no longer in sight, and understand that they continue to exist outside of their own physical perceptions. They can also understand that an object may not be in the same place as where they last saw it. They will search for a “missing” object in multiple and novel locations: toy boxes, under furniture and even in cupboards!

Object permanence is very important because it does not just apply to objects in our immediate environment. It gives us the ability to understand that objects that we may have never seen in our lives actually do exist. For example, I’ve never been to Europe, but I know that there are buildings there, the Eiffel Tower for example, that do exist even though I have never physically seen it. Object permanence moves from the physical to the abstract as we gain more experience with the world around us. Who knew that a simple game of peek-a-boo could lead to such an amazing ability!!

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