A Teachers Guide to Object Permanence

Object permanence is used to illustrate a kid’s capacity to know that objects continue to exist even if they cannot be heard or are not in sight.

If you have played “peek-a-boo” with a young kid, then you probably comprehend how this works. When an object is hidden from view, infants under a certain age often become upset that the item has gone. This is because they are not developmentally mature enough to understand that the object exists although it is hidden from view.

Object Permanence

The idea of object permanence plays a key role in the theory of cognitive development created by psychologist Jean Piaget. In the sensorimotor stage of development, from birth to about age two, Piaget theorized that kids comprehend the world via their motor abilities like touch, vision, taste, and movement.

In early infancy, babies are egocentric. Babies have no idea that the world exists apart from their perspective and experience. To comprehend that things continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, infants must develop a mental representation of the object.


These mental representations are called schemas. A schema is a type of knowledge about the things that exist in the world. For instance, an infant may have a schema for food, which during infancy should be either a bottle or breast.

As the kid grows older and has more experiences, their schemas should multiply and become much more complex and complicated. Through the processes of assimilation and accommodation,  kids develop new mental categories, expand their previous categories, and might completely revise their current schemas.

How Object Permanence Develops

There are six substages that happen during the sensorimotor stage of development.

Birth to 1 Month: Reflexes

In the earliest part of the sensorimotor stage, reflexes are the main way that infants make sense of and explore the world. Reflexive responses like rooting, sucking, and startling are how the infant interacts with their surroundings.

1 to 4 Months: Development of New Schemas

Primary circular reactions lead to the creation of new schemas. A baby may accidentally suck on his thumb and recognize that it’s enjoyable. They  will then repeat the action because they find it pleasurable.

4 to 8 Months: Intentional Actions

At the age of 4 to 8 months, infants start paying much more attention to their environment. They will even perform actions to elicit a response. Piaget called these  secondary circular reactions.

8 to 12 Months: Greater Exploration

At the age of  8 and 12 months, intentional actions become evident. Babies will shake toys to produce sounds, and their reactions to the environment become intentional.

12 to 18 Months: Trial-and-Error

Circular reactions occur during the fifth stage. These involve trial-and-error situations, and infants may start performing actions to garner attention from others.

18 to 24 Months: Object Permanence Emerges

Jean Piaget theorized that representational thought starts to emerge between 18 and 24 months. This is when kids become able to form mental representations of objects. Because they can figuratively imagine things that cannot be seen, they are now able to comprehend object permanence.

Object Permanence

To identify if object permanence was present, Piaget would show a toy to an infant and then hide or take it away. Sometimes he would hide a toy under a blanket and then observe to see if the infant would try and search for the object.

Many of the infants would be confused or upset by the loss, and other infants would instead look for the object.

Piaget believed that the kids who were upset that the toy was gone lacked the understanding of object permanence, and those who searched for the toy had already reached this developmental milestone. In Piaget’s experiments, object permanence typically occured around the age of 8 to 9 months.

Modern Research on Object Permanence

Piaget’s theory was influential and remains popular today, but it has also been met with criticism. One of the main criticisms of Piaget’s work is that he underestimated kids’ abilities.

Modern research on object permanence has also refuted some of Piaget’s conclusions. Today’s researchers have been able to illustrate that with cues, kids as young as 4 months can understand that objects exist even though they are unseen or unheard.

Some researchers have suggested different explanations for why infants do not look for hidden toys. Young kids may not have the motor skills needed to search for the item. Also,  many infants don’t have an interest in searching for the hidden object.