Monday, November 23, 2009

Peek-a-Boo, I See You


A while back it was thought that object permanence—the ability to understand that objects still exist after they are no longer in sight—was an intellectual all-or-nothing milestone. New research1 is showing that the concept of permanence is a process that begins with object identity, moves into understanding the transformational event in which it participates, and then ends with an understanding that objects themselves are permanent.

Huh? In English please...

What this really means is that babies don’t just one day “get it” that objects that have disappeared are still there. It is a long complicated process of understanding that begins around 3-5 months old (and perhaps even earlier) and continues until about 24 months old. Babies learn the concept of permanence in pieces. For example, a baby who is just beginning to understand permanence will look for a toy that has been covered by a towel by lifting the towel but this same baby will not do this if the toy was placed under the towel from a person’s hand. This is because the baby expects the toy to reappear where he last saw it, in the person’s hand. If he does not see it there, he will not yet think to look under the towel. In this case the baby thinks that the towel method makes things permanent but that the hand method does not. He does not yet understand that the property of permanence is inherent to the object not the method of disappearance.

Peek-a-boo games have always been one of the best ways to encourage an understanding of object permanence and given the recent new theories they still remain the best way to teach this concept. However, it makes sense to utilize several varieties of the peek-a-boo game to stimulate the various steps of understanding.

Peek-a-Boo Variations
If you use a particular tone and cadence when you play peek-a-boo variations, your baby will begin to anticipate that something is going to disappear/reappear. This will be helpful to your baby as the games get more complex.

1. Hands covering face or just eyes. This is the classic newborn peek-a-boo game that infants love. You can mix it up a little by asking baby while your face is covered, “Where’s (mommy, daddy, whoever)?” and then saying “Here I am” when you remove your hands, or by starting with “Peek-a” and ending with a rowdy “boo” when you uncover your face. You can also change your expression before and after you cover your face to stimulate your baby’s interest in the game.

2. Pop up person peek-a-boo... Use a hand towel or burp cloth to lift up in front of your face so that you “disappear” and then lower the cloth as you say “here I am” or “boo”. If your baby is not remaining focused on you when you play this variation, only lift the towel up over your nose so that your baby does not lose eye contact with you.

3. Peek-a-boo baby... Use a small scarf or burp cloth to gently cover your baby’s face (start by only draping the cloth over part of your baby’s face) and say, “Where’s (baby’s name)?” and then pull the cloth off and say, “There he is!” Soon your baby will pull the cloth off by himself and before you know it he may even initiate the game by pulling his bib or blankie up to his face.

4. Peek-a-boo books... Read books to your baby that have fold out pages or flaps. Use the flaps to play peek-a-boo by saying “Where’s (anything under the flap)?” and then “There it is” when you pop open the page. One of our favorite peek-a-boo books is Farm Peekaboo by DK Publishing.

bunny5. Jack-in-the-box pop up toy... You probably shouldn't use a traditional jack-in-the-box musical toy for this game early on since the music takes a while and the “reappearance” requires the means-to-an-end motor skill of turning the knob. We have a hand-me-down pop up bunny that works perfect for playing a traditional peek-a-boo game using a pop up toy. At a later stage when your baby is able to sit and perform the fine motor skill of turning the knob, I would recommend the plastic musical jack-in-the-box available at It is very easy to manipulate the knob and does not require the fine motor skills that a traditional metal jack-in-the-box knob does.

6. Hidden toy peek-a-boo... place a small favorite toy on a highchair or swing tray, or the floor, in front of your baby. Cover it with a towel or other cloth and then ask your baby, “Where’s (the toy)?” Pull the cloth off the toy as you say “here it is” and then encourage your baby to remove the cloth by performing the action hand over hand with your baby. Keeping in mind what we now know about the early concepts of permanence, do not spice things up by placing a toy in your hand and then sliding in under the cloth or by switching the toy that is already under the cloth with a different toy.

7. Peek-a-boo picture of you... Print a 5x7 or larger photo of your face and affix it to a piece of cardboard. Raise the photo in front of your face so that you disappear behind it. Say to your baby, “Do you see (mommy, daddy, whoever)?” and then lower the picture while saying “Here’s (mommy, daddy, whoever)”. This game not only helps your child understand permanence but also helps him to understand transference between a picture of an object and the real thing.

8. Paper towel roll peek-a-boo... Take a paper towel roll and as your baby watches, stuff a small scarf or cloth into the end of it. As you ask your baby where the cloth is slowly pull it out of the other end of the roll. You can also use hand over hand to help your baby pull the cloth out of the roll himself. This is a more advanced peek-a-boo game because the object is not reappearing the same way it disappeared and so for a while your baby might think it is a different scarf coming out though it’s doubtful he’ll tell you that ;-)

(Research Credit: New Findings on object permanence: A developmental difference between two types of occlusion—M. Keith Moore and Andrew N. Meltzoff, University of Washington, USA)


  1. Benjamin (19m) has always loved it when we play peek-a-boo with him (with our hands or a blanket), and has just now started to cover his own face to play. It is adorable!

  2. I remember Gabriel going into fits of hysterical laughter over peek-a-boo. This is a great post, btw.


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