Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they are no longer able to be seen, heard, touched or otherwise sensed. Newborns and young babies have not yet developed this understanding. In fact, mastering this concept is one of the infant’s primary developmental accomplishments in the first year of life.
This is one reason that Peek-a-boo is so thrilling for them - it’s genuinely magic to them and naturally appeals to their developing understanding of object permanence. Each time you play peek-a-boo or hide a favorite toy and then reveal it, your infant moves closer to a complete understanding of object permanence.
There are a wide variety of ways to support your baby’s developing perception of object permanence, but one of the classic Montessori tools is the Object Permanence Box. This tool is a rather simple construction, which allows the child to drop a ball into a hole on the top of a closed box. For a moment, the ball vanishes, but ultimately it rolls out into a tray at the bottom.
Let’s take a look at how to use the object permanence box, how it benefits your child, and when it should be introduced.
When to introduce the object permanence box
The best time to show your child the object permanence box is when they’re fully able to sit up on their own, usually between 8-12 months of age. This allows them to sit at the end of the tray where the ball rolls out and lean enough to place it back in the top. You'll find that your child will delight at the novelty of the ball disappearing and then reappearing, and probably be enchanted by this process for a significant amount of time.
At first, around 8 months old, your infant will move more slowly and awkwardly while manipulating the ball and box. But, your child will continue to use the box over time, strengthening their bodies and minds, in order to become more physically skilled, and get closer to understanding the concept of object permanence. Even after they’ve established permanence, they will still likely interact with the box as it’s a fun way to play, almost like playing catch with themselves.
Depending on your child’s physical ability, don’t be afraid to introduce the box sooner if they’re able to sit up earlier. Many Montessorians introduce the object permanence box to babies who show readiness at 7 months old. Similarly, some children aren’t ready until 9 or 10 months, and that is just fine. All babies develop at different rates, and the object permanence box will be useful to all developing infants.
Benefits of the object permanence box
Montessori education loves the object permanence box because it is a simple tool that aids in multiple levels of human development.
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The primary goal of the box is to demonstrate that once the ball disappears in the hole at the top, it still exists. Secondarily, this helps the child understand how to predict outcomes based on the idea that the ball still exists. Upon introducing the object permanence box, you’ll notice your child will drop the ball in and then sit back, surprised and delighted at the appearance of the ball once again.
As time goes on, however, they will learn to expect the ball to appear - a cause-and-effect type of relationship. Eventually, they’ll understand that it’s not cause-and-effect, but rather a continuation of the ball’s existence (though of course, they won’t think of it exactly like that). With time, they will begin to anticipate not just any ball appearing in the tray, but the exact same one they put in the top.
Fine and gross motor function
The simple act of sitting at the box and leaning over to drop the ball in helps your child build strength and gross motor skills. Repeatedly performing the activity builds mastery and will provide them not just with joy and fun but confidence in their ability to perform a task.
Grasping the ball will require big hand movements at first, but they will eventually work on the fine motor skills of picking it up with their fingers. As time goes on, their reflexes will improve as well, moving more quickly and precisely.
At first, the ball will drop in the top and roll to the bottom, and while this is delightful to your baby, they will learn to grab it more quickly as they progress. As they learn object permanence, they’ll begin to anticipate the ball returning and they’ll grab it sooner. Additionally, just putting the ball in the hole at the top of the box requires hand-eye coordination upon which they will build and develop more fully.
Building an object permanence box
There are plenty of well-constructed, wooden object permanence boxes you can buy online, but they aren’t strictly necessary. Constructing your own object permanence box is a very simple and inexpensive DIY project.
Items needed for a DIY object permanence box
- A cardboard box with a lid. Make sure the cardboard box is small enough that your infant can reach it when seated in front of it. I love the idea of a shoebox for this.
- A tray that the box fits in - a soda flat works great here.
- A ball
- Some paints or other art materials to make the box attractive and engaging
Put the lid on the box, taping it closed, so your infant doesn’t remove it. Then, cut a hole in the top big enough to just fit the ball inside.
Cut a wide opening on the side that faces the child, large enough for the ball to easily roll out but not so large as to show the ball immediately appearing out of the hole in the top.
Use your imagination to color the box so it makes your child interested and excited! Just make sure the box is a different color from the ball, so your child can easily differentiate the two visually.
Place the box in the tray and demonstrate how it works, and then observe them interacting with it.
It’s a very easy but incredibly powerful tool to make for your Montessori homeschool.
It’s never too early to start learning
The object permanence box is a great example that constructive learning can start very early. There is no doubt about it: you can absolutely begin Montessori with infants. Maria Montessori knew that children were constantly taking information and making impressions, even as early as right after birth. It’s important to engage your child and provide them with opportunities to explore and learn on their own, and an object permanence box is a great tool for both.
It’s wonderful to see them excitedly playing, but also exciting for parents to observe how their own infant develops object permanence and hand-eye coordination while improving their motor skills. This is an easy-to-assemble, simple tool that will be immensely helpful for you and your children.