My parents told me that the two games I was obsessed with when I was a baby were patty cake and peek-a-boo. My favorite part about patty cake was at the end when my parents would “throw it in the pan” and they’d tickle my belly, but peek-a-boo, I’m not so sure. It seems so simple, yet babies love it. Why do babies love peek-a-boo? Do they really think we “disappear?" Is it all just the magic and surprise of us reappearing?
Dr. Danelle Fisher, pediatrician and vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Romper that babies love peek-a-boo because “they are interacting with a happy face and it's a game to them — the person disappears and reappears right away and they think it is funny.” So they do think we actually disappear! Dr. Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells Romper this all has to do with “object permanence." At about 6 months old, babies start realizing that things that are gone are not necessarily gone forever.
“Object permanence is a concept that something that is out of sight (i.e., covered) is still there even though they can’t see it. This is why peek-a-boo is fun for them, and helps stimulate their brain. They start learning that even when something disappears, it can still be there, but hidden,” Posner explains. Fisher notes that before babies hit 6 to 9 months of age, they don't comprehend that something hidden is actually still there and think that if they can't see something, it's gone forever.
As far as how peek-a-boo affects a baby’s development, Fisher says it is a “demonstration of advancing development in the areas of cognition and visual cues, showing that ‘object permanence’ has been achieved.” According to a BBC Future article, the phenomenon of object permanence came from Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget suggested that children “spent the first two years of their lives working [object permanence] out,” the article reported. The article also suggested that peek-a-boo is a “perfect balance of what your baby knows about the world, what they are able to control, and what they are still surprised by.”
You can play this classic game with your baby in a few different ways, depending on their age. According to What to Expect, you can even play peek-a-boo with newborns by covering your face with your hands, because “newborns are fascinated by faces, and your sweet newborn would rather look at your face than almost anything else in the world.” Another variation as your child gets older could be hiding items under pillows and blankets and revealing it "with a flourish," noted the article.
Your baby's brain is constantly evolving and growing, and it's so fun to observe it happening. Babies love peek-a-boo because they're beginning to learn that when something disappears, that doesn't necessarily mean it's gone, and there's an element of surprise and it stimulates their brain. A win-win in the parenting playtime book if there was one. (Also maybe it'll teach them to stop screaming when you walk around a corner because they'll know you're still actually there.)