What are kids thinking when they “hide” by covering their eyes?

That question’s been the subject of surprisingly serious scholarship, including a study published Sept. 13 in the current issue of the Journal of Cognition and Development.

James Russell, director of the Cambridge Developing Cognition Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in Britain set out to replicate and build upon research published in 1980 that probed a key aspect of the peekaboo game: Why do kids think others can’t see them when they close or cover their own eyes?

The answer turns out to be more complicated than you might think.

Russell’s findings suggest that the nearly universal early-childhood gesture of covering one’s eyes to play peekaboo isn’t some random, “heat of the moment” behavior but one that makes sense to kids and is rooted in their developing sense of self.

In a series of four related experiments involving special glasses, puppets and averted gazes, Russell confirmed earlier findings that children between the ages of 2 and 4 typically believe they can’t be seen when their own eyes are closed or covered and think others become invisible when they close or cover their eyes. The new research further confirmed that kids that age tend to believe that other people can see their head and other parts of their body when the kid’s eyes are closed; while their bodies are visible, their “selves” are not.

So, what’s that all about? Russell probed that disconnect wherein a child believes himself or herself to be invisible even though he knows others can see his physical body. So he conducted experiments that revealed the subtleties of a young child’s mind. It appears, from his findings, that kids in this age group may be working their way through their understanding of what their “self” is and determining that what they understand to be the self is embodied in and accessed via a person’s eyes but not the rest of the body.

Through an experiment in which children were asked whether they and, in turn, an adult experimenter were visible when one or the other averted his gaze, looking past the other person instead of making eye contact, Russell established that the act of creating a mutual connection by making eye contact was essential to the children’s concept of people being visible to one another.

If you’re intrigued and want to know more, do click the link above and read the study (which is quite long and full of psychology-speak) for yourself. I’d be curious to know what you think: Does it convince you that peekaboo is more than just child’s play?