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1.What Piaget and lots of theorists thought was important about Piaget's theory


2.What a lot of people who actually work with children think is important

This is considered a fundamental part of Piaget's theory on children's cognitive development, particularly of the sensorimotor stage, and I actually do agree it's important.

What object permanence is: the understanding that an object exists even when it cannot be physically perceived.
The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" truly applies to early infancy. When an infant age five or six months is interested in an object, which in my daughter's case is invariably whatever she should not have, say an old shoe, a razor someone left lying out, the cat litter, or whatever, it is possible to cover the object up or move it out of the child's immediate range of perception and, as far as the child is concerned, it has ceased to exist.

Here is what you do.... When he or she is playing with a toy, take the toy and cover it up right next to the child. The baby will act as if the object no longer exists even though he or she saw you hide it. That is what is meant by VISIBLE displacement.

According to Piaget, there is a natural progression in the development of object permanence. First, children understand partial visible displacement. Julia demonstrated this just a few days ago and we were very excited. She had been playing with her book and it got pushed under the blanket. She saw about one-fourth of the book sticking out, grabbed it and stuck it in her mouth.

Partial visible displacement is when a child can see an object being partially covered up. How would that fool them? Well, it doesn't look the same. Look below:

V                            /

Obviously, to the right is the letter V and to the left is just a line, half of the letter V, if you like. These are not the same thing. Well, to an infant, when you cover up a book, it doesn't look exactly the same, does it? So, it must be that the book no longer exists. When we did this same test with Julia a month ago, she no longer showed any interest in the book, because, according to Piaget, anyway, she didn't recognize that part of the book sticking out as the very same book she had been playing with.

Julia has still not mastered total visible displacement. That is, when we cover the book up entirely, she does not look for it, but simply crawls off and does something else. [Yes, I really do these tests on my baby, and no, she is not disturbed by being an experimental subject all of the time. In fact, she is quite a happy baby, but thank you for your concern anyway.]

The final step in the development of object permanence is invisible displacement, that is when you hide an object when the child is NOT watching, so they did not actually see you move the object. We tried this with my oldest daughter when she was about a year old. We hid her rocking horse when she was at daycare, and the first thing she did when she got home was start searching the house for her rocking horse that used to be in the living room. Maria was actually showing mastery of object permanence sooner than Piaget suggested was normal. He said that most babies acquire complete object permanence around eighteen months.

Why this is important... Because it is the basis for language and thought. We use words to stand for ideas, that is, to mentally represent something. As adults, we don't have to go around pointing at things to get other people to understand us. We use symbols, such as writing, or, at earlier ages, words, to represent those ideas we have. Before you can use a word to stand for something, you need to be able to separate the IDEA of, say, a book, from the actual physical book itself. You can think about a book, have an idea of one in your mind, talk about it, without a book actually being anywhere in the room. Object permanence is the very beginning of thought. Kind of cool, huh?


What it is... the understanding that a person exists even when we cannot perceive him or her. You have probably played the game of "Peek-a-boo" with an infant. You hide behind a blanket or cover your face with your hands. Then you uncover it and say, "PEEK!" and the baby thinks this is the funniest thing he or she has ever seen. Babies love this game and will play it over and over. On the other hand, the same game played with your friends at a party is not nearly as amusing. Why is that? Most likely it is because the infant is just getting the idea of "person permanence". He or she is surprised and delighted to find that you are still there. Your friends, on the other hand, are not the least bit fooled. They mastered the idea of person permanence a long time ago. They know that is really you under your coat and they wish you would quit putting your coat over your head and playing that stupid game.

Why it is important... because before an infant can develop attachment (which is CRUCIALLY important to child development, in my opinion) he or she must have the idea of person permanence. What is attachment? It is the realization that one person in the world is special among all others. For example, almost all infants develop an attachment to their mothers, and then to their fathers. It is the basis for the development of love, trust and a healthy personality. Now, how can you develop attachment if you don't realize that people are permanent, that they exist even when you can't see them? You will learn more about attachment in the next chapter. On the negative side, once infants develop attachment, and realize that their parents are special to them, they also realize that other people are NOT their parents and develop stranger anxiety, screaming like they are being murdered when left with a babysitter, or even with Grandma. Oh well, nothing is perfect.

2.What a lot of people who actually work with children think is important

I think that object and person permanence is all well and good, contributes to an understanding of children and is worth knowing. However, I think it is unfortunate that many people think that is really all Piaget's theory had to say about infants. In fact, he made a very important contribution by pointing out how children learn through their senses and physical exploration. On the previous page, I gave a brief description of how baths can be a time for sensorimotor exploration. PLEASE do not get the mistaken notion that you need lots of toys and money to provide a good environment for cognitive development. At the moment, the favorite object that "Julia the toy-rich baby" likes to play with is a box that some lightbulbs came in. It is light, so she can pick it up and wave it around. It has two parts, so she can pull it apart and put it back together. It is multicolored with a picture and writing on it, so she finds it interesting to look at. She can put it in her mouth. What more could a baby want? Listed below are numerous activities which allow sensorimotor exploration. Many of them are free. See what others you can add."You" in these examples refers to the infant, but you can do these yourself if that is the kind of thing that makes you happy. None of them are illegal for adults or anything, although they may gain you some odd looks.


  1. Crawl in the sand. Sit in it. Stand in it. Feel it on your feet. Run the sand through your hands. Put it in your mouth. (Actually, I am not that much in favor of this last activity but I have yet to be able to prevent it.)
  2. Go stand under a tree and look up at the leaves. Get someone to pick you up so you can see the leaves up close and how they are attached to the branches. Touch the bark and feel how rough (or smooth) it is.
  3. Pet the cat. Listen to it purr. Feel how its side rumbles when it purrs.
  4. Pet the dog next door.
  5. Crawl around on the rug. Crawl around the bathroom floor. (Head Start inspectors would have a cow about this one, but since it's my house and my baby I can do what I want. Besides, we clean our bathroom floor regularly - honest!)
  6. Pull the pans out from the cupboards in the kitchen. Bang them on the floor. Listen to the sound these mae.
  7. Lay on your back and tear the newspaper apart. Listen to the sound it makes. Crumple up the newspaper. Look at all of the colors in the comics. Stick the newspaper in your mouth. (This is another one I am never quite fast enough to prevent.)
  8. Lay on your back and watch the mobile over your crib go round and round. Listen to the music. Try to reach up and rip the toys off of it.
  9. Listen to your music box.
  10. Shake your rattles. Bang them on the floor. Put them in your mouth.
  11. Have your parents play with puppets with you, talking in silly voices. If you don't have a puppet (or even if you do) have them make you one using a paper bag or a sock and some markers. A wonderful thing about babies is that they are't very critical. Even if your home ec or art teacher would have given you an F for the puppet, the baby will still like it.
  12. Take lots of baths (see previous page)
  13. Take a taste of everything anyone is eating - from tamales to chocolate shakes to gatorade to animal crackers. (Again, this is one that might drive some bureaucrats with regulations about proper nutrition straight up a wall, but notice I said a TASTE, so she can have a new experience. I am big on sensory experiences. For your information, I do not provide my baby a steady diet of gatorade; she lives 90% on breast milk - but she REALLY liked the tropical punch gatorade, and a melted peanut butter cup, too. On a very practical note, I advise giving an infant a very tiny amount of a new food and only trying one new item a day. That way, if there is an allergic reaction, you will know what specific food caused it.)
  14. Get carried around the lake. Look at the plants. Grab a leaf and crumple it up.
  15. Crawl in the grass. Pull up handfuls of it.
  16. Look at flowers. Get carried around the neighborhood where there are lots  of gardens.
  17. Go to church. Look at all of the pictures and candles. Listen to the music and the people talking.
  18. Play with stuffed animals. Look at them. Wave them around. Crawl over them. Chew on different parts of them. Drop them on the floor.
  19. Get carried around the kitchen while people make coffee. Watch the water run. Stick your hands in the water. Stick your feet in it. Listen to the coffee grinder.
  20. Go to the grocery store. Look at all the different kinds of food and all the different colors and sizes of boxes and bottles.
  21. Get carried into the kitchen and have someone pull out all of the different jars of spices and hold them under your nose so you can smell them.
  22. Get taken to the playground. Have someone swing you. Get taken down the slide. Go on the bridge on the climbing structure and see what the world looks like when you are up higher.
  23. Have someone sing to you. Songs that have the same pattern over and over are good, like Ten Bears in a Bed. Songs where you do something, like the Itsy Bitsy Spider, are good too.
  24. Have people read you book and point out the pictures in them.
  25. Go to the ocean and look at the waves. Smell it. Put your feet in it.

WHY DO WE DO THESE THINGS? Because, as you have just read, and as you will read more in the next few chapters, for the first several years of childhood (if not longer) most of what children know comes through direct experience. Language develops first in relation to experiences that children have. Children who grow up on the reservation will normally know words like "pow-wow", "fry bread", "snow" and "star quilt" much sooner than will a child in Los Angeles who has no experience with those sorts of things. The more experiences a child has, in general, the more of a vocabulary she will have, because she will need to have words for those experiences. The other important point, that I will come back to over and over, is that children learn through INTERACTION with other people. Piaget did not emphasize this as much as other theorist, most particularly Vygotsky, but he did say it was important.
TALK TO YOUR CHILD AS YOU DO ALL OF THESE THINGS. Julia goes through life with a constant narrative.

"Those are leaves on the tree, Julia. Green leaves. Leaves are green. Touch them."
"That is bark. It is the tree's bark. The bark feels rough. It is brown."

How much of it do I think she understands? At this point, probably close to none. I do know two things for certain, though.

1. Young children learn through repetition, and she gets a lot of it as I constantly label everything she sees and experiences through the day - blue boat, red boat, yellow boat, and so on.

2. At some point, she will start understanding language and at that point it will be all around her. She won't have missed a day when she was ready to learn that she wasn't exposed to a constant stream of language.

Click here to go to the next section on language and social development.


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