The term object permanence is used to describe a child's ability to know that objects continue to exist even though they can no longer be seen or heard. If you have ever played a game of "peek-a-boo" with a very young child, then you probably understand how this works. When an object is hidden from sight, infants under a certain age often become upset that the item has vanished. This is because they are too young to understand that the object continues to exist even though it cannot be seen.
The concept of object permanence plays an important role in the theory of cognitive development created by psychologist Jean Piaget. In the sensorimotor stage of development, a period that lasts from birth to about age two, Piaget suggested that children understand the world through their motor abilities such as touch, vision, taste, and movement.
How Did Piaget Measure Object Permanence?
In order to determine if object permanence was present, Piaget would present a toy to an infant before hiding it or taking it away. Some of the infants would appear confused or upset by the loss, while other infants would instead look for the object. Piaget believed that the children who were upset that the toy was gone lacked the understanding of object permanence, while those who searched for the toy had reached this developmental milestone.
Recent Findings Suggest Object Permanence Occurs Sooner
Recent research on object permanence has called into question some of Piaget's conclusions. Researchers have been able to demonstrate that children as young as three-and-a-half months are able to understand that objects continue to exist even though they are unseen or unheard.
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Baillargeon, R; DeVos, J (1991). Object permanence in young infants: further evidence. Child Development 62(6), 1227–46.