Parenting Counts is a product of Talaris Institute.



Young children are great explorers

From birth to age five, children learn an astonishing amount about how the world works. They learn how to speak and understand complex language, how objects that disappear from view can still exist, and how people feel about events in their lives. They are, as several researchers point out, among the best learners in the universe.

So how do they learn? They grab things, examine them, bang them on the floor, and drop them. They are fascinated by new and unusual objects, people, and situations and will walk or crawl toward fragile items and off-limits places. When they find a game they enjoy, like peek-a-boo, they want to play it over and over again. These activities are all part of a larger learning process. Scientists call this process hypothesis testing.

A closer look at hypothesis testing

To understand hypothesis testing with children, we first must realize that it always begins with what they already know. Based on what they know, children make predictions about what they think will happen. These predictions are called hypotheses. Of course, hypotheses can be right or wrong, and that’s why children—just like scientists—need to test them repeatedly.

The science of peek-a-boo

Peek-a-boo seems like an obvious game to adults. It’s fun to play, but adults know exactly what will happen. There’s no real mystery to the game. Nobody’s afraid that the baby might disappear forever just because she’s out of view.

“Where’s mommy?” “Peek-a-boo!” (baby giggles) “Where’s mommy?” “Peek-a-boo!” (baby giggles again). Sound familiar? Every parent and caregiver around the world knows the joy of playing peek-a-boo. Hiding your face from a baby, waiting a few precious moments, and then bursting into view with wide eyes, a big smile, and a loud “peek-a-boo!” can be delightful. It’s so much fun you probably don’t realize that you are part of an ongoing scientific experiment. This giggling baby is the scientist.

What is your child thinking?

Now let’s look at peek-a-boo from a young child’s point of view. When an adult hides his face, the baby thinks about the situation differently. The adult might truly be gone! Peek-a-boo helps children learn that something can be hidden from view but still exist in the world. If we slow the game down, it may look something like this:
1.  I can’t see Daddy’s face. (making an observation)
2.  Where did he go? Is Daddy still there? (asking a question)
3.  I’ve played this game before, and I think he’s still there. (creating a hypothesis)
4.  Let’s see . . . Peek-a-boo! It’s great to see Daddy again! (testing the hypothesis)
5.  I was right. Daddy can hide his face, but I know he’s still here. (evaluating the evidence)

By playing peek-a-boo, children test their ideas about things that disappear. Over time, children learn that objects still exist even when hidden from view.

Helpful parenting tips

  • Provide a safe area for discovery, as little explorers get into everything within their reach.
  • Be patient as your child explores. The brain takes in lots of information.
  • Introduce new things for the baby to touch and feel, inside and out.
  • Respond to the baby’s discoveries with words and expressions.
  • Repetition is an important part of learning, so be ready to play peek-a-boo over and over again.