Object permanence is the term for when a baby understands that an object still exists even though they can no longer see it.
The concept was first identified by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1954) as part of his theory on stages of cognitive development.
When a child understands that an object still exists, even though they can longer see, hear, or smell it, it is a sign that the child’s cognitive skills are improving.
According to Piaget, most children will develop object permanence around the age of 7-8 months.
However, more recent research has found that most infants will develop object permanence a bit earlier and sometimes the methodology a researcher uses will impact the age at which a baby will display object permanence.
Examples of Object Permanence
1. Toy Under the Blanket
One very popular demonstration of object permanence involves a toy and a blanket. First place the baby on the floor about 3 feet in front of you.
Then show them a small toy for a few seconds. Make sure that they see the toy clearly. Next, place the toy under the blanket that is also on the floor right in front of them.
If the child has attained object permanence, then they will try to recover the toy. Even though they can’t see the toy, they know that it still exists. If a child has not attained object permanence yet, then they will simply start looking around the room or maybe start to crawl away. In their minds, there is no toy, it doesn’t exist.
2. Keys Behind the Back
If you want to test if an infant has achieved object permanence yet, you can do so with a simple test using your keys.
First, place the infant in front of you facing in your direction. Then show your keys to the baby and shake them a few times.
Then, while the baby is still looking at the keys, put them behind your back. Don’t shake them again. Now look carefully at the infant’s eyes and observe where they look.
If the baby tries to look behind your back or motions for you to move, then it understands that the keys still exist, even though they can no longer be seen or heard.
Of course, if the baby had no interest in the keys in the beginning, then the test is not very useful. So, you can try another object that might be more interesting.
3. Box and Drawer
Montessori toys are great for developing the cognitive skills of babies and very young children. One item in particular is called the Box and Drawer. It was specifically designed to help babies develop a sense of object permanence.
First the baby drops a small ball into the box. Once it disappears, if the child does not have an understanding of object permanence yet, it is literally out of sight out of mind. However, the toy allows for the ball to reappear in a drawer that is positioned under the hole.
The rationale is that if the child repeatedly observes the ball disappearing and reappearing, it will facilitate the cognitive development associated with object permanence.
4. The Rolling Ball Game
With this activity you will need a brightly colored ball, about the size of a tennis ball, and a large piece of cardboard.
Shape the cardboard like a V-shaped tent and place it on the floor in front of the baby about 3 – 5 feet away. Tape a triangle shaped piece of cardboard inside the “tent” at one end.
Show the ball to the baby and make sure they can see it clearly. Then, move the ball around in a circle in the air to keep the baby’s attention, and then roll it on the floor towards the tent.
When the ball disappears under the tent make note of the baby’s reaction. If the baby acts surprised and moves towards the tent to retrieve the ball, then they have reached object permanence.
5. Separation Anxiety
At about the same time children develop an understanding of object permanence, they also develop separation anxiety; a fear response when their primary caregiver leaves their sight.
It’s no coincidence. Before object permanence, whenever the mother left there was no cognitive understanding of her absence. Thus, the child does not show any strong emotional reaction. However, once the child’s brain has matured biologically, their cognitive development also matures.
At that point, the child has a very clear understanding that the main source of their safety and provider of all of their needs, is gone. That is a very scary proposition for the baby because they are solely dependent on their mother for survival.
6. Playful Puppy
Although some parents are a bit cautious about allowing household pets near their newborn, many parents have learned that dogs seem to have an instinctive tendency to be gentle around an infant.
It’s a lot more likely that the baby will do harm to the dog by grabbing one of their ears.
To test for object permanence, sit the baby upright on the floor. As the dog will naturally want to play, they may prance around the baby or even drop one of their favorite toys near their legs. The baby will surely be enthralled with all the action.
Next, call the dog out of the room. Make sure they go where they can’t be seen. If the baby has reached object permanence, then they will look surprised and may even try to crawl in the direction the dog went.
However, if object permanence has not been reached yet, the baby will not show surprise and will quickly divert their attention to something else in the room.
7. Hide and Seek
If a child can play hide-and-seek, then they definitely understand object permanence. The game is simple, one person hides while the other person covers their eyes.
Of course, babies and toddlers will not be able to count to 50 before they start looking, so a variation on the game is to set an alarm.
When the alarm goes off, it’s time to start seeking. It may take a few practice runs before a very young child will understand how the game is played, but once they figure it out they will never want to stop.
However, if the child has not yet reached object permanence, then the game will be very short; as soon they close their eyes and the parent hides, game over.
8. Wind-up Toy
Purchase a small wind-up toy that doesn’t make noise. Next, get a piece of cardboard that is about 30 inches long and 10-15 inches wide.
Place your baby in their high-chair at the table. Wind-up the toy and let it go across the table, but out of baby’s reach.
As your baby is watching the toy wobble across the table, place the cardboard between the baby and a little ahead of the toy’s path. Keep the cardboard steady as the toy continues its path forward and behind the cardboard so the baby can no longer see it.
Take note of the baby’s eyes and reaction when the toy disappears behind the cardboard. If they look away then it means they have not reached object permanence yet. However, if they look intently at the cardboard or try to move the cardboard away, then they have attained object permanence.
9. Puppet in the Box
Buy a new hand puppet and make sure you don’t let your baby see it until you are ready to play. Then find a cardboard box that is large enough to hide the puppet in completely.
Set the box between you and the baby. The flaps on top should be easily opened and closed. Get your baby’s attention by moving the puppet around in circles above the box. Watch your baby’s eyes and make sure they are tracking the puppet’s movements.
Then, drop the puppet in the box. It needs to go down far enough that the flaps spring back up and close the opening.
If your baby tries to look inside to find the puppet, then they have object permanence. If however, they look away and show no further interest in the box, then they do not yet have an understanding of object permanence.
This game has been around for a very long time. Not only do babies love to play, but even children 2 to 3 years old enjoy it.
The reason that it is often given as an example of object permanence is that when the adult covers their face with their hands, the baby’s mind forgets that there is a person there. This is because they do not have object permanence yet.
Then, when the adult quickly moves their hands away to reveal their face (and saying “peek-a-boo” in a cheerful tone), the baby is surprised at the all-of-a-sudden reappearance of their adult play partner. This creates a form of “cognitive surprise” that the baby finds joyful.
Understanding object permanence is a key milestone in an infant’s growth. It means that their cognitive development is progressing and that they are showing early signs of memory formation.
Although Piaget originally stated that this development would occur around the age of 7-8 months, research has shown that many babies reach this milestone much earlier.
We can observe many examples of object permeance in our baby’s everyday life: do they look for an interesting toy even though they can no longer see it; do they show continued interest in their dog after it has been called to another room; or do they show separation anxiety when their primary caregiver has left their sight.
These are all signs that the baby has a clear understanding that an object still exists even though it can no longer be seen.
Baird, A. A., Kagan, J., Gaudette, T., Walz, K. A., Hershlag, N., & Boas, D. A. (2002). Frontal lobe activation during object permanence: Data from near-infrared spectroscopy. NeuroImage, 16(4), 1120-1126.
Bogartz, R. S., Shinskey, J. L., & Schilling, T. H. (2000). Object permanence in five‐and‐a‐half‐month‐old infants? Infancy, 1(4), 403-428.
Bremner, J. G., Slater, A. M., & Johnson, S. P. (2015). Perception of object persistence: The origins of object permanence in infancy. Child Development Perspectives, 9(1), 7-13.
Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.
Moore, M. K, & Meltzoff, A.N. (1999). New findings on object permanence: A developmental difference between two types of occlusion. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 17(4), 623-644. https://doi.org/10.1348/026151099165410