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Piaget's Object Permanence in Infants: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Jean Piaget's Theory
  • 1:16 Object Permanence
  • 3:33 Why Is Object…
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson you will learn the definition of object permanence, how it can be assessed in children, and why it is an important part of cognitive development. Following completion of this lesson, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Jean Piaget's Theory

Jean Piaget was a psychologist who dramatically altered the way in which developmental psychologists view the cognitive development of children. Prior to Piaget, it was widely believed that cognitive development was a passive experience, meaning it just happened. Piaget's work demonstrated that children are much more active participants in the process than psychologists initially believed.

According to Piaget, rather than sitting back and waiting on the changes to happen, children are regularly taking in new information and applying it to their existing concepts to create new representations of objects in their world. Piaget's theory of cognitive development involves four distinct developmental stages, each with its own milestones.

This lesson will focus on one specific developmental milestone which he refers to as object permanence. Object permanence occurs during the first of Piaget's four stages, the sensorimotor stage. Children are active participants in their cognitive development, so exposure to situations involving the need for object permanence fosters development by encouraging the child to experience different events and then learning how to coordinate his or her physical activity in response.

Object Permanence

Object permanence is the ability of a child to understand that objects exist even if they cannot directly be sensed. You have probably heard the phrase, 'out of sight, out of mind.' Until children can achieve a sense of object permanence, 'out of sight, out of mind' is not just a figure of speech, but reality.

Let's look at a couple of examples of object permanence in action.

If you have ever played with relatively young babies, then you know it's no secret that they love playing peek-a-boo! The game itself is pretty simple. You cover your face with your hands and then abruptly move them to reveal your face. The 12-month-old will usually laugh and smile with excitement. This is so stimulating because the child literally has no clue that your face is still there, hiding behind your hands. Every time he sees your smiling face appear, he is genuinely and pleasantly surprised.

As the infant begins to mature or if he has played peek-a-boo many times, the response may change. The baby might start to realize that he has the ability to coordinate his motor activities to solve this problem, and eventually he might pull at your hands, trying to expose your face. He might also begin to recognize that your face always reappears, making the game less fun. In the time before this development takes place, though, peek-a-boo is great entertainment!

Of course, faces aren't the only things that can disappear. Imagine that you have a toy that the child finds interesting, and then you hide it. It can be behind your back or you can place a divider between the baby and the toy; it doesn't matter as long as the child cannot see it. What happens next? Typically, the child either becomes disinterested or upset because he thinks his toy is gone. Even though he saw you physically take and hide the toy, without a sense of object permanence, he has no idea that it is merely out of view behind your back or the divider. Much like in peek-a-boo, the child is taking information via his senses and making decisions about how to act. In a novel situation like this, the child may get frustrated, but as the child develops he will start to realize that coordinating what he sees with behavior or action can result in solving this problem and finding the missing toy.

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