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The Role of Object Permanence in Early Cognitive Development

For those in early education, understanding the development of object permanence is more than just academic knowledge that’s important for exams. A true grasp of children’s cognitive shift equips teachers with practical tools to boost classroom engagement and learning.

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Object permanence is a cornerstone in cognitive psychology; it can—and should—inform and guide early education professionals as they support the young minds in their charge.

The term refers to an individual’s comprehension that objects still exist even when unseen. We aren’t born with this; the cognitive leap happens in infants as young as a few months old and is an important aspect of cognitive development. A very small baby may assume that its parent has vanished from existence when they can’t see them, while an older one will understand that they have just gone into another room and will likely return.

The groundwork for this theory finds its roots in the pioneering work of Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who was the first to systematically study the acquisition of understanding in children.


Object Permanence is Significant for Early Childhood Educators

For those in early education, understanding the development of object permanence is more than just academic knowledge that’s important for exams. A true grasp of children’s cognitive shift equips teachers with practical tools to boost classroom engagement and learning. It empowers them to design targeted educational activities that improve the learning experience significantly. 


Historical Background: The Theories of Jean Piaget

Our comprehension of object permanence begins with the seminal contributions of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Revered as pivotal in developmental psychology, Piaget’s theories have sculpted much of our current understanding of cognitive development, particularly in children.

He theorised that cognitive development unfolds across a continuum of stages, each one representing a distinct mode of thinking. There are four major stages identified in his theories:

  • Sensorimotor
  • Preoperational
  • Concrete Operational
  • Formal Operational


These four stages provide a comprehensive framework for gauging cognitive evolution from infancy to adulthood. He underscored the significance of ‘schemes,’ or mental frameworks, that humans use to interpret and engage with their environment.

Most relevant to object permanence is the first of the four stages: the sensorimotor stage.


The Sensorimotor Stage

Spanning from birth to roughly two years, this stage is characterised by experiential learning: touching, feeling, moving, and perceiving. Object permanence typically begins within this period, at around the 8-12 month juncture. 

During this stage, infants gain knowledge through their senses, their motor movements, and trial and error. There is a lot to be learnt during the sensorimotor stage—a lot of development happens during these years, a fact of which parents and educators will be well aware!

Unpacking the mechanics of object permanence requires an examination of two vital components: schemas and the six substages in Piaget’s Sensorimotor Stage. These elements shed light on how children understand the enduring nature of objects.


Six Substages of Piaget’s Sensorimotor Stage

The sensorimotor stage has six substages, each a crucial stepping stone in early development.

  • Reflex Schemas (0-1 month)

Newborns use innate reflexes to engage with their environment.

  • Primary Circular Reactions (1-4 months)

Infants begin coordinating sensation and action, though their focus remains inward.

  • Secondary Circular Reactions (4-8 months)

The focus shifts to manipulating external objects, albeit through self-centred actions.

  • Coordination of Reactions (8-12 months): 

Object permanence typically emerges during this stage, as infants exhibit purposeful, coordinated interactions with their surroundings.

  • Tertiary Circular Reactions (12-18 months)

Exploration and experimentation come to the forefront as children discover novel problem-solving strategies.

  • Symbolic Thought (18-24 months)

Children commence forming mental representations, paving the way for language development and more intricate forms of play.



In Piaget’s terms, a schema is a cognitive scaffold, a framework for comprehending the world. As infants interact with their surroundings, they continually create, adapt, and arrange these schemas. 

The schema for object permanence takes shape as children realise that actions result in predictable outcomes. For instance, when a child repeatedly drops a spoon and notices that it falls, a schema for gravity begins to crystallise. Introducing activities that challenge and broaden existing schemas paves the way for more sophisticated cognitive processes—and for that reason, understanding these schemas and how to incorporate them in learning activities is majorly useful to early educators.


How to Assess Object Permanence

Experimental Activities

Piaget crafted some very helpful experiments to assess whether learners have reached the cognitive leap of object permanence. One common example is, of course, the “peekaboo” game, where an object or individual is concealed from a baby’s sight and subsequently revealed. Initially, very young infants behave as if the object or person has vanished from existence upon disappearance. However, as they mature, they understand that this is not the case and that something can exist even when they don’t see it.

Another example is hiding a toy under a blanket while the child observes. A young baby may behave as though the toy has disappeared, while one who has developed object permanence may look underneath the blanket to find it.

Simple and everyday activities like this can be used by educators and parents to gauge a child’s development and tailor pedagogical approaches accordingly.


Common Behaviours 

A child’s behaviour may change with the onset of object permanence. Recognising these behavioural changes can help parents and educators to keep track of their developmental progress. Here are several common behaviours that indicate the milestone has been reached:

  • Searching for hidden objects

Initially, if a toy is concealed while a child is observing, they may not actively seek it. However, as object permanence solidifies, the child proactively searches for the toy.

  • Anticipating movement

As children grasp object permanence, they may predict the movements of people and objects even when out of sight. For instance, they may crawl towards the door upon hearing the sound of keys, anticipating someone’s arrival.

  • Distress during separation

Children may exhibit separation anxiety as they internalise the concept of object permanence. This stems from realising that caregivers still exist even when out of sight, creating a desire for continual connection.

Understanding and recognising these behaviours empowers educators to cultivate a more focused and nurturing learning environment tailored to each child’s developmental trajectory.


How to Encourage Comprehension of Object Permanence in the Classroom

There are several ways that educators can help children progress towards this developmental milestone and support them as they attain it. Here are a few ideas:

  • Structured hide-and-seek activities

Incorporate games that challenge a child’s comprehension of object permanence. We suggested a few earlier: peek-a-boo and the hidden toy activity! These not only assess object permanence understanding but transform learning into an interactive endeavour.

  • Use of visual aids

Employ visual aids when explaining abstract concepts or narrating stories. Recognising that children may not fully grasp the enduring nature of objects can inform the creation of learning materials.

  • Parent-teacher collaboration

Share insights about object permanence and its developmental milestones with parents regularly. Collaborative engagement helps to build a seamless educational experience for the child across school and home.

  • Transitional objects

For children grappling with separation anxiety, a transitional object—such as a favourite toy—can offer comfort. These objects serve as constants, reaffirming the enduring presence of caregivers even in their absence.


Object Permanence and Special Educational Needs

Children with special educational needs may have unique challenges when it comes to acquiring object permanence. An inclusive learning environment requires tailoring educational approaches to accommodate diverse cognitive profiles!

Tools and approaches that better support a child with special educational needs might include:

Collaboratively-created customised interventions that cater to diverse cognitive needs. 

  • Multi-sensory approaches

Varied stimuli to accommodate sensory sensitivities, optimising learning engagement.

  • Regular assessments and adaptations

Frequent evaluations to inform adaptive teaching strategies. 

  • Parent-teacher communication

Collaborative partnerships for more holistic support structures.

Training equips educators to navigate diverse learning landscapes effectively.


Criticisms and Modern Understandings of Object Permanence

A 2014 study on object permanence added nuance to Piaget’s theory, suggesting that “object permanence is not a once-and-for-all attainment.” It used two different methods of occlusion (hiding/covering) of objects to test 10-, 12-, and 14-month-old infants and found that one type of occlusion was solved at an earlier age than the other. Simply put, infants were able to understand the permanence of an object which had a screen put in front of it earlier than they were able to understand the permanence of an object which was placed behind a screen.

This essay discusses a range of modern experiments which indicate that some of Piaget’s findings may have been skewed by issues with “how failure to search is interpreted.” It suggests that object permanence may develop at a younger age than Piaget estimates, with infants unable to co-ordinate a search for the object although they understand that it has gone.

While Piaget’s framework endures as a solid foundation, more recent and nuanced perspectives highlight the complexity of child development.


In summary

Object permanence is more than just an interesting developmental milestone. It’s a core part of growing up and learning about the world around us! As educators, it’s important to support and encourage this crucial phase in childhood development.

Understanding how object permanence develops is identified and assessed and can be encouraged to improve our teaching practices. Knowledge is power, and knowing this theory allows us to structure and tailor learning activities in the most effective way possible.

Take a look at our range of CPD courses for educators to gain insights on child development and many other topics.


Recommended Reading & Resources:

  1. The Psychology of the Child by Jean Piaget – A seminal work discussing cognitive development stages.
  2. How Children Think and Learn by David Wood – Focuses on practical applications in education.
  3. Mind in Society by Lev Vygotsky – Explores the role of social context in cognitive development.
  4. Educational Psychology by Anita Woolfolk – Comprehensive coverage of educational psychology.
  5. Your Baby’s First Year by Penelope Leach – Focuses on developmental milestones in the first year.
  6. Inclusive Early Childhood Education by Penny Deiner – Inclusion strategies for children with special needs.
  7. Child Development and Education by Teresa M. McDevitt and Jeanne Ellis Ormrod – Covers various aspects of development and education.
  8. Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv – Discusses the role of outdoor play in child development.
  9. Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe – Focuses on curriculum design.
  10. Children’s Thinking by Robert S. Siegler – Discusses cognitive development in the context of educational psychology.

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