The game of peek-a-boo

A tool for growth that combines science and fun
Reading time: 3 minutes


Jean Piaget, one of the twentieth century's leading psychologists on cognitive development, defined intelligence as "one of the greatest forms of adaptation to the environment" and if we think about it, this is exactly the developmental task children face: to discover the world around them, finding the most practical strategies for interacting in their family and social environment in the best, most organised way possible.

Piaget thus identified different stages of cognitive development, starting from birth and continuing until adolescence. The first stage is what he called "sensorimotor" which goes from 0-2 years of age: these 24 months are characterised by many changes, as infants progress from reflexive action and very simple movements to goal-directed actions, from listening to voices and sounds to production of their own language and from the simple examination of toys to complex and structured manipulation of them. As parents, you know how wonderful and fascinating it is to see them learn something new every day: waving with their hand, taking those first steps and uttering their first words are all moments that you will cherish forever, as they are so emotionally significant. Developmental progress is often favoured by play, and that includes play with grown-ups (an essential activity much-favoured by children that allows them to practise different skills): one game in particular is that of peek-a-boo.

Why is peek-a-boo such an important game?

Play really is a "serious matter" and the game of peek-a-boo is a perfect example.

This age-old game passed down from one generation to the next is extremely simple, but not at all trivial: sitting opposite the child, the adult covers their face with their hands, "disappearing" from the child's sight for a few seconds before promptly reappearing again! Children usually pay a great deal of attention, waiting eagerly for the adult to reappear, upon which they often burst out laughing. Behind all this is a fundamental milestone in cognitive development: it is what is termed "object permanence" meaning the ability that children have, from around 8 months onwards, to realise that things (and people too, in future) still exist even when they are out of sight. At around this age, if you hide a toy underneath a blanket, you will see that your child will pull the blanket away and grab the toy, seeming very pleased with themselves (and they will likely give you the toy back again to indicate that they want you to repeat the game). If you play the same game when your child is just five months old, you will see, instead, that they will look at you in puzzlement, as a toy that is no longer visible to them simply no longer exists to their mind, so they will not even look for it.

Managing to grasp the fact that objects exist beyond the moment of perception allows children to go through a fundamental experience also from another point of view: they will start to relate to that feeling of separation from an object or person and will learn to briefly tolerate a toy, for example, "disappearing", or their mother or father being out of sight for a few seconds. They may disappear from sight, but they remain very much present in the child's heart and mind, and this is essential for enabling them to overcome what in the future will be called separation anxiety (for more in-depth reading on this subject, see the article "The fear of strangers"). So, if through the game of peek-a-boo, your child begins to gradually accept separation from something or someone important to them, in the future they will probably manage to handle the anxiety and frustration of being separated temporarily from you, their parents (for example when they have to go to nursery or stay at home while you go to work), coping without any major crisis. This is because they will understand that just as objects "disappear" briefly only to then reappear, the same applies to people, so they know that after a period of separation, at the end of the day they will be able to cuddle mummy and daddy again and all will be well.

How to have fun together playing peek-a-boo?

  • The basic game follows the classic mode described above, but there are plenty of possible variations to make the game increasingly complex and fun:
  • the adult can partially cover their face with their hands, but they can also hide their whole face, perhaps behind a book, a plate, a box or a t-shirt, and as parents you can ask playfully "Where is mummy/ where is daddy hiding?" Your child will reach towards you and pull away the object between you and them in order to find you, looking very pleased with themselves
  • you can also switch roles: first you hide your face behind your hands, then you get your child to hide in the same way... the smartest little ones will stay hiding for a long time because they have so much fun hearing you looking for them!
  • another fun version of the game, when children are a little older, is where you do not just hide your face, but you let your little one see you leave the room, and then you ask them to come and find you (at the start, be sure to keep talking so that they do not feel abandoned, then once they understand the game, you can even do this without talking): they will be extremely eager to crawl or walk in your direction, then as soon as they find you there will be big hugs before starting the game over again, perhaps with them hiding from you this time!
  • this can be a fun game for the whole family: usually children have great fun hunting not just for their parents, but also brothers or sisters hiding behind every door in the house! So make sure to make time for peek-a-boo, an active game for fun galore!
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