“If I cover my eyes I’ll be hidden” – how young children understand visibility

Young children aged between two and four years believe that you only have to hide your head to become invisible – if your legs are on view, it doesn’t matter, you still can’t be seen.

That’s according to Nicola McGuigan and Martin Doherty who say this is probably because young children think of ‘seeing’ in terms of mutual engagement between people. It explains why kids often think they can’t be seen if they cover their eyes.

The researchers placed a Teletubby toy in various degrees of concealment behind a screen on the opposite side of a table to a Care Bear toy. If, from the perspective of the Bear, the Telebubby was completely hidden, completely visible, or just its head was showing, the children were able to accurately judge whether the Bear could see the Telebubby (at least 86 per cent accuracy). By contrast, when the Teletubby’s legs were showing but its head was hidden, the children wrongly tended (49 per cent of the trials) to say it could not be seen by the Bear.

A second experiment showed young children don’t make the same mistake when judging if inanimate objects are hidden – they realise that if any bit is poking out, the object will remain visible to an observer.

“In the case of a human target (including themselves), children may misconstrue ‘see’ as mutual engagement. If so, when covering their eyes they are really attempting to avoid engagement with others – and in this sense, their action can be effective”, the researchers concluded.

McGuigan, N. & Doherty, M.J. (2006). Head and shoulders, knees and toes: Which parts of the body are necessary to be seen? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24, 727-732.
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