Cognitive development is the intellectual maturity which transpires from infancy to adulthood. The first to propose systems of measuring the manner by which infants and children perceive and think about the world, Jean Piaget’s model for cognitive development was created in the 1920’s and demonstrated the great disparity in how babies and children think about the world, as compared to adults. Originally having studied as a biologist, Piaget’s map for cognitive development is the most focused upon tool to understand the mind of youths in the past century.
The first of Piaget’s cognitive development stages is the period of sensory-motor intelligence. According to Piaget, this stage lasts from birth to about two years. Piaget concluded that during this stage infants only understand the world in terms of their own individual sensations. First, infants have no conception of object permanence, or notion that objects exist independently of a person’s scrutiny.
For example, Piaget noticed that infants do not realize that a toy bear exists even when not in the infant’s sight. This is why pee-a-boo is such a thrilling game for babies; they actually believe that when a caregiver disappears behind their hands they have actually ceased to exist. Thus, when the care giver appears once again, the baby is delighted.
An experiment which Piaget conducted to prove infants have no object permanence consisted of covering a toy which was in the baby’s line of sight with a towel while the baby watched. Though the infant witnessed the toy being covered, they made no effort to retrieve it from under the towel because they lacked any concept of object permanence. Piaget concluded this was because the covered toy no longer existed in the infant’s mind.
Roughly around the eight month mark an infant will begin searching for toys which are not visible, leading Piaget to conclude that this is around the time in which infants develop a crude understanding of object permanence. However, during this time object permanence is still under developed. For example, one of Piaget’s experimenters covered a nine-month-old’s toy monkey with a blanket while the infant watched. When the experimenter had finished, the basic understanding of object permanence allowed the infant to understand that when they lifted the blanket the monkey would be underneath, and thus the infant retrieved their toy. This action was repeated several times, and each time the infant’s object permanence allowed them to retrieve the monkey. However, after several instances of this, Piaget had his experimenters hide the monkey in a slightly different location under the blanket. Though the infant had watched the monkey being hidden in a slightly new location, the infant still searched for the monkey in the same location as originally. Thus Piaget concluded that an infant’s object permanence was still underdeveloped.
This specific lapse in object permanence, where a child is unable to discern where in space an object lies, was named by Piaget as the “A-not-B effect”. An infant under the “A-not-B effect” will believe an object lies where the infant once found it (A) rather than in a new location (B) because the infant believes their reaching and finding the object is part of the object’s identity. The infant’s conception of object permanence extends to allow the object to exist when it is not visible but is still directly related to the infant’s interactions with it, as Piaget noted.
Thus, Piaget concluded that the major accomplishment of the sensory-motor stage is an infant’s ability to understand objects exist independently of themselves, or a full acceptance of object permanence. This sophisticated concept of object permanence is reached after the infant begins to utilize their senses to understand the spatial frameworks in which all objects, including the infants themselves, exist.