Your child began to develop a simple form of memory in the womb, before 30 weeks of gestation. Fetuses as young as 23 weeks can recognize a loud sound made close to the mother’s abdomen. How do we know? The first time she hears the noise, she reacts with a startle. But, after hearing the same noise a few times, she’s no longer startled. She’s remembering the noise.
Of course, this is just the beginning of the journey. Memory develops and improves with practice throughout childhood.
Ask your child questions to improve their memory
The best way to help your child improve her memory is by asking her lots of questions about past events and probing her growing general knowledge.2 Here are some examples:
Yes, that’s a fire engine! Where do you think that fire engine is going?
Aunt Ngozi is coming over to dinner tonight. Do you remember who is in her family?
As always, it’s best to get into a back-and-forth conversation with your child, working together to recall information and build knowledge. Also, try to focus your questions on topics your child is interested in or on things that caught your child’s attention at the time.
Neuroscientist Lise Eliot writes, “By focusing children on the important facts — the who, what, when, where, how, and why issues — parents can teach their children the requisite narrative skills — how to think about events in terms of time and causality — which is ultimately how we recall facts and events later on.”
Children as young as four can benefit from remembering strategies like sorting and categorizing. This is a great age to ask your child to help you sort the laundry. Could you put all the white things together? How about the dark-colored clothes? Or offer up your measuring cups to your child and have her sort them from largest to smallest, and then show her how to stack them inside each other.
Patricia Bauer, professor of psychology at Emory University, studies memory development in young children. She has found that children remember things better when they have multiple, similar direct experiences. She also sees that memory is enhanced when children get both verbal cues and visual prompts. In addition, like adults, children remember things that mean something to them.
How might you put all these findings to work to help your child develop her memory? Let’s say your child loves chocolate chip cookies. Ask your child to help you make them. “Sweetie, can you help me remember what ingredients (things) we put into chocolate chip cookies?” Then gather the ingredients with your child, letting your child do much of the work. “OK, how much of each thing do we need?” Let your child measure and combine things, as best as she can. Keep talking to your child about each step.
You may end up with a pretty big mess on your hands, of course, but you’ll have a great time. And you’ll also be helping your child build those memory muscles!
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