A Review of Bruner and Sherwood’s Study of Peek-a-Boo

“Humans are social animals”. This phrase broadly describes the human behavior and its effect on their development process. One tends to make their lives worth living by experiencing different activities that help them grow. These activities cater humans to strengthen their capabilities and skills. The main aim of this review article is to introduce the concept of “peek-a-boo” and its mere importance as a game in the development process of a child.

Peek-a-boo is a fundamental game which manipulates the infant’s hold on ‘object permanence’ which refers to the ability to be acquainted with the persistent existence of an object even when it is out of sight. The review also includes the analytical evaluation of the concept of peek-a-boo itself. As a simple game of disappearance and reappearance that has always been a part of every infant’s childhood, it has its own strengths and weaknesses which evaluate the methodologies and different viewpoints regarding the game itself.

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Moreover, the review also focuses on the critical analysis of the different theories of child development put down by various researchers such as Piaget (1980), Vygotsky (1896) and Darwin (1809) with respect to the theory by Jerome Bruner (1977). The article by Bruner and Sherwood describes a proper study which observed six infants whose age varied from 7 to 17 months, for over a period of 10 months. The design of the study was set such as to make sure that the mother and infant were seen once a fortnight in a laboratory. The mothers were asked about the games that they and their infant enjoyed playing the most.

One mother daughter dyad was concentrated on which lasted for 22 episodes. The experiment was started by vocalized or face to face contact and the sessions of the mother and child were videotaped where analysis was carried out on video records. The experiment consisted of three rounds that were played where the concept of “object permanence” was demonstrated. The first round was the attention-focusing round where contact between child and the mother was made by means of vocalization or face to face contact. Consequently, the second round was the actual act of hiding. In this round, ither the mother or the child was hidden first which initiated the game of peek-a-boo. Finally, the third round which was considered to be the most critical round was when uncovering and reappearance was the key task. This is when the child started unmasking the mother as soon as she was recognized. Critically, the article itself describes some of the theorists such as Charlesworth (1996) who proposed that position and the location in which a face has disappeared is the main factor due to which a child can keep track of the unexpected disappearance and reappearance.

Prior to that, Greenfield (1970) built up on this idea saying that the voice of the mother affects the child’s response to the unexpected disappearance and reappearance. She believed that the voice of the mother provided great help and support to the child to familiarize to unknown settings. These theorists have shown their point of view on the game peek-a-boo itself which are related in one way or the other as both explain factors that affect the response of the infant.

Peek-a-boo, considered to be a simple experiment highlights an easy observable fact and demonstrates a general activity that is and has always been a part of every child’s childhood shows the commendable work put down by Bruner and Sherwood. It explains the way a child runs his/her mind at a very early age which proves the strength of its existence as a segment of every infant’s childhood. Moreover, as the experiment proceeds, the researchers have shown how the child listens to instructions and conforms to the rules of the experiment that are explained to her by her mother.

This explains the child’s positive response to directives and how she interprets it with the help of her mother’s voice. However, the study does include some methodologies that could be criticized in terms of how the experiment proceeds. One of the drawbacks of the study could be that it only includes a female child and there is no variation in age involved. Considering the fact that there is always a difference between the personalities and behavior of the two genders especially in childhood, the experiment should have included a control dyad or could also use a mother son dyad.

At this point, the study loses its ability to generalize due to the fact that gender difference has been ignored. Furthermore, the study could also be criticized on the fact that it does not highlight the presence of children that suffer from psychological issues or disorders such as dyslexia. Unlike children with presence of mind, some infants are not even able to respond to visualizations at an early age. Therefore, the experiment lacks reliability due to exclusion of mentally challenged children or those who suffer from psychological disorders from the experiment.

The study explains how the mother helps the child to make contact in the first round of the experiment. However, the experiment does not focus on the possibility of an unknown individual helping the child with the first round. Peek-a-boo being a very common game played in childhood even in today’s time, it is not necessary that the game is played between the mother and the child. Anyone around could play the game with the child so as to make the child comfortable around that individual.

Therefore, the study by Bruner and Sherwood ignore the reaction of the child that could be measured around an unknown individual in an unfamiliar setting. As it is mentioned in the beginning of the study that the experiment was conducted in a laboratory, it itself is one of the weaknesses of the work by Bruner and Sherwood. Laboratory experiments are carried out in artificial settings which increase the possibility of the observations to be unauthentic. This also reduces the validity and reliability of the experiment.

As a portrayal of the process of child development, many theorists have proposed different viewpoints over the years. To start with, John Piaget (1980) has a reductionist view about the developing child itself. He portrayed a very narrow perspective towards child development and the stages involved. Having a strong belief in the concept of epistemology which states that knowledge is the successful result of constant interaction within the world (Piaget, 1980), he said that the children learn to adapt to their environment which is how they gain experiences during their lifetime.

This view has been further explained by Lev Vygotsky(1896) who is known as one of the pioneers of psychology. He believed that the way children think is affected by their knowledge that they acquire from the social community. Moreover, it has been concluded that one of the significant tools that are required in order to gain this social knowledge is language. He believed that intelligence is the capacity to learn from instructions which requires the presence of significant others in a child’s life. These could be parents, adults, teachers etc. Vygotsky also described the concept of “zone of proximal development”.

He proposed that with the assistance and information of people who possess better understanding of the world around a child, a child can potentially gain knowledge from them depending on his level of comprehension. This is how a child moves on to learning the complexities of life. Another component of Vygotsky’s theory explains the concept of scaffolding. This concept relates to the phenomenon of zone of proximal development as Vygotsky explains that an adult adjusts the amount of help that they provide to the child depending upon their level of progress.

If a child is able to pick up information at a faster rate, then the adult tends to move towards complex tasks in terms of teaching the child. Analytically, Piaget and Vygotsky both share the same opinion about child development. However, the difference lies in the emphasis given by Vygotsky to the cultural and social processes in learning and development. This is where he clearly differs from the Piagetian view which stresses on the view that a certain development stage needs to be reached in order to learn.

Charles Darwin (1809) is known as one of the founding fathers of child development. He had his own area of research about the development process of a child. He differs from both Piaget and Vygotsky in a way which he explained by experimenting on his own son. He is known as the originator of the theory of evolution as he clearly emphasizes on the theory that human beings can be well understood by studying their genesis both as species and as individuals. He studied his son’s sensory, cognitive and emotional development (Dennis, 1936).

He concluded that development is a staged process and learning takes place simultaneously. The work put down by Bruner and Sherwood is useful in its own way. It succeeds in analyzing the stages of child development focusing mainly on the early phases of childhood. It also provides a framework for the understanding of the concept of ‘object permanence’ and the importance of significant others in a child’s life. However, there is considerable room for further research regarding individual responses of different children. One can conclude that the esearch reviewed in this article is unable to relate and generalize to the concept of individual understanding of objects and methodologies. It lacks the ability to be functional on any child who is undergoing the phase of early childhood considering the fact that not every child has the same capabilities and capacities.


Bruner, J. S. & Sherwood, A. V. (1977). Early rule structure: The case of Peekaboo. In M. Gauvain & M. Cole (Eds. ), Readings on the Development of Children (2nd edition) (pp. 73-78). New York: Freeman & Co.

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