Cause and Effect, Object Permanence

Early Cognitive Concepts

Young boy plays peek-a-boo with a baby. Credit
Young boy plays peek-a-boo with a baby. Credit “peek-a-boo – _MG_6709” by sean dreilinger.

Child psychologist Jean Piaget identified the Sensorimotor stage of development as occurring between 0-2 years in typical children.  (Learn more about Piaget’s Stages of Development.) During this period, two key early cognitive concepts develop, namely the understanding of cause and effect and learning about object permanence. Children in this stage use their senses and motor skills to explore the world and understand their environment.  They begin to learn that if they cry, an adult will come to comfort them and that even if the adult is not in their immediate presence, they still continue to exist.  These basic concepts help them to recognize that they can make things happen and that there is some predictability to the world.

What is Cause and Effect?

Cause-and-effect thinking, or causality, allows us to make inferences and reason about things that happen around us. Causality helps us understand things as simple as “If I don’t water the plants they’ll die” to things more complicated such as other people’s intentions and behaviors.

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Learning and the Brain

Cause and effect is the understanding that one can do something that makes something else happen, e.g. I kick my foot and it makes a thudding sound.  This concept, which typically occurs at the 6-9 month developmental level, is fundamental to understanding one’s own agency in the world. It makes the individual understand that they can be active participants in the world and not just passive observers. Understanding that their action can cause a reaction is what motivates children to move, vocalize, and interact with the world.  

What is Object Permanence?

In the first few months of life, babies inhabit a world of the ‘here and now’. While they recognise some familiar faces, their memory development is in its earliest stages and they explore their world through movement and the senses.

Understanding object permanence signals an important development in an infant’s working memory, as it means they can now form, and retain, a mental representation of an object. It also marks the beginning of a baby’s understanding of abstract concepts.

Child Development: 5 things you need to know about… object permanence

NurseryWorld

Another essential cognitive concept is object permanence, which is the understanding that things continue to exist even when one can no longer see or touch them.  Sighted children at the developmental age of 6 months often enjoy playing peekaboo, where the adult covers their face with their hand or a cloth, then moves their hand or cloth and smiles at the baby.  

Knowing that something continues to exist even when we cannot see, hear, or touch it is what prompts us to search for something.  If you were not sure that your car keys continued to exist even when you didn’t know where they were, you would not start to look for them.  It’s the knowledge that they are out there somewhere that motivates you to look.  Similarly, for children who may wish to find a preferred toy, they will be motivated to find it if they know that it continues to exist even if they are not in contact with it.

How do disabilities affect the development of these concepts?

A wrist scarf with bells.
A wrist scarf with bells.

The cognitive concept of cause and effect can be developed and strengthened through Active Learning activities.  Initially a child discovers things by accident and experimentation.  For example, they may initially alert to the sound that bells make and be drawn to that sound by turning their head, reaching, smiling or vocalizing. However, if the child cannot see the object or see it clearly, the attempt to engage with the object may not occur and the child may not figure out that he caused the sound to occur through his own actions. Likewise, if the child is deaf or hearing impaired, she may not be aware of the sound at all. If the child is deafblind, the only way the child may be able to develop this awareness is through the tactual sense or with support from the tactual sense.

A young boy plays in a Little Room.
A young boy plays in a Little Room.

Object permanence has a different significance for children with visual impairments and/or hearing loss.  Since they are not able to see or hear something, they may need additional time to develop an understanding that things continue to exist without the use of their distance senses to detect them. Objects need to be within the child’s reach for her to be able to know that it exists. Without the support of the tactual sense, learning object permanence is difficult for the child.

How can we help children to develop these concepts?

    • Place small sound-producing items (like small bells or rattles)  on their wrists or ankles, so they will begin to learn that when they move their arms/legs, they are the ones making these sounds.
    • Suspend items near the child, so that random movements will cause them to come into contact with the item and encourage them to make the movement again intentionally.
    • Hang items in the Little Room or on Position Boards in consistent locations initially, so that the child can begin to predict where to find something and what will happen when they manipulate it.
    • Ring a bell behind a cloth and encourage the child to remove the cloth to find the bell.  For children with vision, cover an item with cloth and encourage the child to remove the cloth to discover what’s underneath.
    • Use sound-making toys and objects that also produce a vibration such as a tipping tray with marbles, dowel rods, walnuts, or golf balls in it that will produce a sound and a vibration when the child moves it with feet or hands.
    • Let a child play on a Resonance Board with a variety of preferred objects around him that he can relocate once he has interacted with them.
    • Use a Position Board, Little Room, or HOPSA Dress that allows a child to interact with an object, leave it and return to it. 
    • Place objects like golf balls, spoons, or rocks inside a sock and let the child get them out.
    • Play with electronic gadgets like personal fan, toy that moves, blender that are attached to a switch device that allows the child to turn it on and off.
    • Drop different objects from various heights on to a Resonance Board or tray and hear the noise or feel the vibration they  make when they land.
    • Play with wooden and metal spoons on pots and pans to hear the the different sounds they make or feel the different vibrations.
    • Build a tower with blocks or boxes and knock it down.
    • Roll cars of different sizes down a slide.

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Almost any activity done using an Active Learning approach provides an opportunity for the child to develop these key cognitive concepts. If you want to explore some other sources related to cause and effect and object permanence, check out these sites:

California Department of Education – Foundation: Cause-and-Effect
California Infant/Toddler Learning & Development Foundations

 https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/itf09cogdevfdcae.asp

All About Object Permanence and Your Baby
Healthline.com

https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/object-permanence