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What Peekaboo Teaches Kids About the World

Researchers say hiding games play an essential role in child development

Photo: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

You cover your face with a blanket, then uncover it to see your baby’s reaction. Cover. Uncover.

Two years later, your toddler is standing in front of you with her hands over her eyes, yelling “Can you see me?” for roughly the hundredth time in a row. It’s cute and mind-numbing parental labor — and it says more about your child’s brain development than you might guess.

“Peekaboo surely must rank as one of the most universal forms of play between adults and infants,” wrote cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner with a colleague in 1976. Researchers have studied peekaboo games from South Africa to Germany to Japan (where a parent might chant “Inai inai ba!”), using the ubiquitous game to look at children’s smiles, laughter, expectations, and perception of others’ emotions. They’ve even studied the brain activity of nine-month-olds during a game of peekaboo.

Iris Nomikou, a linguist in the Psychology Department at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, has found the hiding game to be a powerful window into the developing mind. In a 2017 paper, Nomikou and her colleagues made video recordings of Polish mothers playing peekaboo (“A-ku-ku!”) with their babies at four and six months old. The older infants were more engaged in the game, but even as early as four months, babies made some attempts to participate — by reaching for a cloth covering the mother’s face, for example. And babies’ smiles and vocalizations didn’t come at random times but were more likely to happen at certain moments, such as smiling when Mom’s face reappeared.

Peekaboo is “like a dialogue,” Nomikou says. (Other researchers have called it a “protoconversation.”) “We sort of assume that these kinds of interactions are key for language development.” The game has a predictable back-and-forth, which the infants in the study seemed to learn over time; Nomikou saw that babies were more likely to participate when mothers made space for them by pausing and waiting. Inviting a baby to participate in the game, rather than just observe, she says, may be a powerful factor in the child’s development.

Besides teaching the rhythm of social interaction, peekaboo is also a very early education in physics. Object permanence — the understanding that things don’t disappear just because we stop seeing them — develops between four and seven months of age. As infants start to discover this principle, they’ll experiment by, say, chucking things off their high chair and then leaning over to look for them, says Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive. Their developing grasp of object permanence is likely part of why babies enjoy peekaboo, Klein says.

Older infants may initiate peekaboo games, such as by putting a blanket over their face and then pulling it off again. Klein says that since self-awareness doesn’t develop until toddlerhood, these babies probably aren’t trying to hide themselves. Instead, by covering and uncovering their eyes, they’re making the people around them go away and come back — another experiment in object permanence.

But as infants become toddlers, their interest in peekaboo becomes more about separation, Klein says. As toddlers develop independence and start to explore the world on their own, they need the security of knowing loved ones will still be there. “What they’re playing out in these rituals is this idea that when someone disappears, even momentarily, then they reappear,” Klein says.

“[Peekaboo] kind of goes through childhood,” she says, transforming into the more sophisticated game of hide-and-seek as kids age.

Toddlers start out as enthusiastic but inept hide-and-seekers. But Sangeeta Parikshak, a clinical child psychologist with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, says that in her experience, kids improve at hide-and-seek around age three or four. In her clinical work, Parikshak has used peekaboo and hide-and-seek as therapeutic tools with kids ranging from 12 months to five years.

For children who have experienced trauma or are in foster care, Parikshak says hide-and-seek can build their sense of trust: The adult always comes back. She has used the game to help children face other challenges as well. She recalls a kid with motor delays who improved his coordination by practicing fitting into hiding spaces, and another who ignored his fear of heights to climb up and hide on a bunk bed.

Similarly, parents can use hiding games at home to help their kids hit developmental milestones, Parikshak says. Hiding an object under a blanket might entertain a baby who doesn’t love tummy time. Pushing a covered object just out of reach can encourage babies to learn to crawl toward it. Hide-and-seek can help toddlers and preschoolers learn how to deal with conflict with their peers by teaching them to take turns: Now I hide, now you hide.

Of course, the game may not be as scintillating for you as it is for your toddler. “A two-year-old goes and hides in the exact same place, and you see 90% of their body,” Klein says. But parents who point out that their kids are perfectly visible are missing the point, she adds.

“It’s a fun game, it’s a joyful game, but it’s actually getting at an emotional core for the toddler,” she says. When parents keep playing, Klein says, “They’re saying to the child, ‘I’m here for you every time you leave. I’m not going away.’”

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Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a freelance science journalist and humor writer in the Boston area.