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Understanding Object Permanence: Essential Tips for Caregivers

Object permanence is one of the cognitive skills that a child will develop in their first year. Learn easy ways to help infants develop this understanding and cope with separation anxiety.

Understanding Object Permanence: Essential Tips for Caregivers

Understanding Object Permanence: Essential Tips for Caregivers

In the early stages of a child's life, their understanding of the world is shaped by their senses and experiences. As they grow and develop, one crucial cognitive skill emerges: object permanence. Object permanence refers to a child's ability to understand that objects and people continue to exist even when they are out of sight. This skill not only lays the foundation for their understanding of the physical world but also plays a vital role in their emotional well-being.

For many children, separation anxiety can be a challenging experience. It is during these moments of separation from loved ones that the concept of object permanence takes on a significant role. As educators, you have a unique opportunity to help children develop this skill and navigate the emotions associated with separation anxiety.

In this article, we will delve into the importance of object permanence in a child's development and explore practical strategies that educators can employ to support children in developing this cognitive skill and managing separation anxiety.

An infant wearing a brown onesie and laying on a blue and green play mat. He is holding a white toy rabbit. The rabbit's arm is in his mouth.


What is object permanence?

Object permanence is the understanding that an object or person continues to exist even when it can't be seen or heard. According to Piaget's theory of cognitive development, infants reach this cognitive development milestone between 8 and 12 months old, during the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development.

Each substage of the sensorimotor stage builds on the skills learned during the preceding substages:

Reflexes (birth to 1 month old)

During the reflexes stage, infants interact with the world using automatic movements and reflexes. When the nipple of a bottle touches an infant's cheek, they may instinctively turn their head and attempt to latch onto the nipple and suck.

Primary circular reactions (1 month to 4 months old)

During the primary circular reactions phase, infants begin to coordinate single actions into integrated activities as their reflexes are replaced with voluntary movements. For example, they may grasp an object and suck on it. Infants may accidentally engage in a behavior and find the behavior interesting. This interest will motivate them to try to repeat the behavior so they can learn to engage in the behavior voluntarily.

Secondary circular reactions (4 months to 8 months old)

During the secondary circular reactions phase, infants shift their cognitive actions beyond themselves and toward the outside world. They begin engaging with the world and try to make things happen in their environment. They use repeated motions to interact with objects, such as slapping their hands on a table or banging toys together.

Coordination of circular reactions (8 months to 12 months old)

During the coordination of circular reactions phase, infants can anticipate events and carry out actions to achieve a goal, such as finding a toy that has rolled out of sight. Objects continue to exist in the infant's mind even when they can't see them. This is object permanence. During this stage, infants also begin to experience separation anxiety.

Tertiary circular reactions (12 months to 18 months old)

During the tertiary circular reactions phase, young toddlers deliberately vary their actions and experiment to learn about the physical world. They use trial and error to learn and explore their environment.

Internalization of schemas and early representational thought (18 months to 24 months old)

During the internalization of schemas and early representational thought phase, young toddlers can use mental strategies to solve problems. They can also engage in pretend play, find objects without being able to see them, and use past knowledge to solve problems.

Why is object permanence important?

Object permanence is a fundamental cognitive skill that plays a crucial role in a child's overall development. It allows children to understand that objects and people exist even when they are not directly perceived or observed. This understanding forms the basis for their ability to make sense of the world around them and predict future events. Object permanence also contributes to the development of memory, problem-solving skills, and language acquisition.

Moreover, it lays the foundation for healthy emotional development by helping children cope with separation anxiety and providing them with a sense of security and stability. By grasping the concept of object permanence, children gain a greater understanding of the world, develop stronger relationships, and become more independent individuals.

Object permanence and ADHD

There is often confusion about the relationship between ADHD and object permanence. A child with ADHD may exhibit the same lack of understanding regarding things not directly in front of them. The base cause, however, is different. Object permanence relates to an awareness of an object’s entire existence while ADHD is more about the ability to recall the object.

Struggling with object permanence isn’t a symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children who have ADHD struggle with an "out of sight, out of mind" phenomenon caused by difficulties with working memory, not object permanence.

Working memory is an executive function that impacts how information is processed, used, and remembered. Working memory allows children to keep track of multiple pieces of information at once. Children who have ADHD have trouble remembering information when they’re distracted or their attention is divided.

Unlike infants who haven't developed object permanence, children who have ADHD are aware that objects still exist when they aren’t looking at them. However, children who have ADHD may forget where an object is after their attention has been redirected.

How to help children develop object permanence

You can incorporate specific activities into your daily schedule that can help infants develop object permanence. A tool like brightwheel’s lesson plan feature allows you to create a custom curriculum with ease and share progress with families. 

The below activity ideas are simple yet effective ways to teach object permanence:

Playing peek-a-boo

Playing peek-a-boo with infants is a great way to help them develop object permanence. Cover your face with a blanket or your hands, and after a moment, remove your hands or the blanket. At first, the infant will believe you disappear when your face is covered, but after some repetition, they’ll begin to understand that you're still in front of them even when they can't see your face.

Hiding an audible toy

Show the infant a toy that makes noise, such as a rattle. Move the toy so the infant can hear the noise, then hide it under a blanket so the infant can't see it. Next, move the toy under the blanket so it makes a noise again. Try to get the infant to reach for the toy. This will help them understand that the toy still exists when it's hidden under a blanket.

Rolling a ball in a cardboard tube

Show the infant a small ball. Lay a cardboard tube on the floor. Place the ball inside one end of the cardboard tube. After a moment, tilt the cardboard tube so the ball rolls down to the other end. Show your infant that the ball is now at the opposite end of the tube.

Activities that help develop a child’s understanding of object permanence can also benefit their social-emotional growth as well as their cognitive growth. The basis of object permanence is to understand that something still exists even when it can’t be seen. This concept can apply to people and caregivers as well.

When children experience separation anxiety, part of the fear is that their family member could be gone forever and will never come back. A well-developed sense of object permanence reminds children that their family member is somewhere else and will eventually make their way back to pick them up. An understanding that their loved ones’ presence still exists can be a great comfort when it comes to soothing separation anxiety.

Final thoughts

Over time, helping infants develop object permanence will give them the coping skills to overcome their separation anxiety. They’ll learn that their family member still exists when they can't be seen, and they’ll return at the end of the day, just like their teacher returns after a round of peek-a-boo.

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