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What Is Object Permanence?

Children have developed object permanence when they realize that hidden or out of sight objects, like a boxed toy, still exist.
A very young child may believe that she cannot be seen if she is unable to see other people.
Jean Piaget coined the term object permanence, believing babies reached this stage around eight or nine months.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
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  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2014
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While for many infants, a thing out of sight is also out of mind, there is a developmental milestone, called object permanence, that a child reaches when he or she realizes that the object exists even when it can't be seen. The term was coined by child development expert and psychologist Jean Piaget, who believed most children reached this stage when they were about eight or nine months old. All children develop slightly differently, however, and may reach this point earlier or later than others.

Piaget studied this milestone by conducting relatively simple tests on infants. He would show an infant or young baby a toy and then cover it with a blanket. A child who had a clear concept of object permanence might reach for the toy or try to grab the blanket off the toy. A child who had not yet reached this stage might appear distressed that the toy had disappeared.

Parents, of course, have tested object permanence for years with young babies. Games of peek-a-boo with a three month old are quite delightful because the child will often be pleasantly surprised each time the parent covers her hands with her face and then reappears. According to Piaget's theory, the delight results in the sudden reappearance of the parent, who magically disappeared and came back. Children over five or six months may also hide under blankets and expect that their parents can't possibly find them, since the child cannot see the parent.

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A lack of understanding of this concept might also explain why children tend not to fuss as much when they are younger and the parent leaves. This is not always the case, however, which may call into question some of Piaget's theories. For instance, studies testing breastfed week-old infants suggest they can easily differentiate between their mother's breast milk and that from another woman. Basing the concept on what can be only visually perceived discounts what can be heard, smelled, or touched.

In complete dark, for instance, a baby far too young to have developed object permanence may feel comforted by the touch and smell of a mom sleeping nearby or picking up the baby. The mother exists even before the sight of the mother can be determined, so vision cannot be the only factor guiding this concept.

It is clear, however, that as infants begin to expand their visual perception, they may seem quite surprised by the sudden visual disappearance of a beloved toy or person. They may be still able to smell, hear, or sense the missing object, however. This suggests that the infant has more ways of perceiving than were summarized by Piaget in his development and testing of the theory.

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anon301080
Post 5

Some people never develop object permanence; RAD children never do. When you're out of sight, you're out of mind.

raresteak
Post 3

There have been studies on autistic children with regard to their object permanence comprehension and development. While these studies have determined that many autistic children are able to grasp the concept of object permanence at a normal and even early stage of development, these children are prone to using less coordinated and regular steps to solve the object permanence test/task they are presented with.

FastPaced
Post 2

Some people argue that part of the reason a child in its first year of life will not remove a blanket they have seen cover a toy is related to motor skill development.

solomonh
Post 1

It is really obvious when a child crosses over into having object permanence. One day the child will totally lose interest when you put an object away and the next day they are begging for it even after it is out of sight. it's really exciting at first to see your child achieve this milestone but then it gets really annoying, when you want them to just forget about whatever it is and they keep asking for it or crying for it.

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