The phrase “object permanence” was thrown around a lot when I first started working at Magic Beans a year and a half ago – “Oh, this toy? It’s perfect, it helps kids understand object permanence.” Cue puzzled faces! Object permanence is a key early developmental skill that babies typically pick up in their first year – but what does it mean? And do baby toys really help?
“Object permanence” refers to the understanding when something goes away, it is not gone forever; because you cannot see the object anymore, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Remember the game peek-a-boo? You may not remember being on the receiving end of it, but trust me, you got a kick out of it. When you cover your face with your hands and then drop your hands from your face, you are showing the child that sometimes, when you take something away, it is not gone forever.
This is an important skill that everyone has that’s so ingrained that we don’t even remember learning it: you don’t start wailing when the remote goes missing, you find it in the couch cushions and continue your binge watching of last season’s Mad Men. When someone leaves the room for a minute to say, go to the bathroom, you don’t think that they’re gone forever and that’s the end of them.
So how do you teach your baby about object permanence? And when do you normally start working on it? Generally, this starts around 5 months or so. Peek-a-boo is typically the first object permanence game, as it requires nothing more than your hands and some one-on-one time with your little guy or gal. Nothing is better than watching them light up at the “boo,” until they start to put their hands on their face and play along with you. Take an item, hide it partially or fully, and then show them the item again, and the way they light up makes you feel like the world’s greatest magician. But kids will eventually grow tired of this game, and chances are, you will too. That’s where toys that play with the concept of object permanence come in!
One of our favorites is the Manhattan Toy Put & Peek Birdhouse. It has four walls, including one see-through side, and the top comes off; it also has a carrying handle. Kids can put the birds (and anything else they may find) in this birdhouse and then take them out, over and over again. This would have been a huge hit with my niece, whose hobby between the ages of 8 months and 24 months was putting things into other things – she would carry around a Skip Hop lunch box filled with items that she found, and any time her parents found their keys, or their wallet, or other important items missing, that’s where it would be!
This kind of play is the starting point for the understanding that hey, the toaster isn’t eating my toast. The microwave isn’t stealing my hot chocolate’s soul. I put it in there and I’m going to take it out. You learned that so smoothly, you didn’t even know you were learning it. Congratulations, you!
Any toy where the child puts something inside the toy and can take the things back out is an excellent toy to work on this crucial skill. Shape sorters are an excellent example as well, and they get kids started on learning colors and shapes, too.
Of course, developmental stages can vary wildly from child to child, so don’t assume that every baby you encounter is going to hit the same milestones at the same time. It’s easiest to pinpoint the right gifts for developmental stages if you know the child well. But if you’re not sure what to buy – we can help! Our friendly store associates and online customer service staff can make some great suggestions of what to buy for a special baby.