What Is Object Permanence? A Simple Concept With a Complicated Name

What Is Object Permanence? A Simple Concept With a Complicated Name

What is object permanence?

You’ve heard your pediatrician mention it at check-ups. You’ve seen it on other Montessori sites. Maybe you’ve even seen a labeled toy in a Montessori classroom.

But you’re still not totally clear on what it is. So what is object permanence exactly?

Object Permanence

Object permanence is the idea that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. That may seem obvious to adults, but this concept is earth-shattering to babies. And understanding this concept is a major developmental milestone in infants.

To understand object permanence, think about how excited babies get when someone plays peek-a-boo with them. They laugh and giggle every time they see the adult’s face reappear behind a blanket or pair of hands.

Sure, the game is fun to the adult, but it’s something even more to the baby. Babies seven months or younger haven’t developed object permanence; that means when they can’t see something, it’s gone. That something can be their favorite stuffed animal under their blanket or even their caregiver when he leaves the room.

Understanding that babies interpret the world differently helps adults see why infants cry when they can’t see something that we know is still there. Object permanence means you can have a mental picture of something and know it’s still there even though you can’t see it.

So, how do we know all this?


Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist, and he was one of the first thinkers to propose that children and adults think differently. Until his time, most people thought that children were just small adults. 

But Piaget didn’t think this was true. Instead, he believed that a child’s thinking grows and develops. 

And he identified four critical stages of cognitive development:

  • Sensorimotor (birth to 2) - Children use their senses to learn about the world.
  • Preoperational (2 to 7) - Children think at a symbolic level.
  • Concrete operational (7 to 11) - Children develop rational and organized thinking.
  • Formal operational (12 to adulthood) - Children and adults think systematically.

Piaget believed that infants understand the concept of object permanence at about eight months old or during the sensorimotor stage. 

Piaget’s research is still significant today. Maria Montessori took his thinking one step further.


Maria Montessori

Dr. Maria Montessori was an Italian physician and educator who also thought differently about the way children learn. She believed that children learned by doing, and experiential learning was critical.

Like Piaget, Dr. Montessori understood the importance of object permanence in babies, and she even designed materials specifically for the concept. These items are still used today in the movement area of Montessori classrooms, and they target children aged infant through toddler.

Object permanence materials are found in the movement portion of the Montessori curriculum because children typically need to be able to sit up before they can use them. They also need to have fine motor skills that are developed enough so they can use the materials independently. 


Object Permanence Box

One of the first items used to study object permanence in children was a box with a tray. With this item, a child places a ball in a hole. The item briefly disappears and then reappears in the tray.

There are two objectives with this item. First, the child learns the item still exists even though he can’t see it. Secondly, the child further develops his fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination because the ball has to be placed correctly into the hole for the process to work. 

The object permanence box is a classic Montessori tool.


Object Permanence Box with Drawer

A slightly more challenging object permanence toy is the box with a drawer. With this toy, children again drop an object through a hole. However, the object lands in a drawer this time, and children must open the drawer to find it. 

Like the original box, children learn that the object is still there even though they can’t see it. This toy is more ambitious, because children need to understand they must open the drawer to find the object.


Introducing the Box

The process is very important in the Montessori method. It’s calming for children to know what comes next because predictability promotes stability. 

Whenever you want to introduce a new item to your child, show them the process of using the item and invite them to use it.

When introducing the object permanence box to your child:

  1. Place the box on the floor next to your child.
  2. Use the correct language - “This is a ball. This is a box.”
  3. Put the ball in the hole slowly.
  4. Pick up the ball and repeat the process.
  5. Invite your child to try.
  6. Calmly back away from the learning space so your child can explore.
  7. Encourage your child to put the box away on a low shelf so they can get it back out when they’re ready to work again.

The Montessori method and Montessori materials are powerful because they teach the importance of order and exploration. And object permanence materials are tools that highlight both.


Montessori & Me’s Object Permanence Box

Are you a parent ready to watch your baby learn object permanence? Or are you an educator looking for Montessori items for your classroom? Either way, Montessori & Me has you covered. 

Our object permanence box is beautiful and timeless. The box is made from eco-friendly hardwood and covered with a child-safe finish. And the ball size conforms to child-safety regulations, so you can feel confident knowing your child can play independently without fear of choking.

Click here to purchase.


Oh! And one more thing! Montessori & Me is getting ready to release its own object permanence box with a drawer. Make sure you’ve subscribed to our email list so you can get up-to-date information about when it will be released.


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