The Limited Memory Capacity of Young Children

The Limited Memory Capacity of Young Children

Can you remember anything from when you were an infant, toddler, or preschooler? Why is it that we don’t have a lot of solid memories of experiences prior to the elementary school years?

Young children have much better “episodic” than “generic” memory. Memories of experiences directly involving them are more likely to be recalled than general facts. For instance, on President’s Day in mid-February, you tell a preschooler that George Washington was the first president. The next day, you ask her to name the first president. She has no idea. But she still can tell you in great detail about every toy she received for Christmas almost two months earlier. That is why active, involved learning experiences, such as those she receives in a Romp n’ Roll class are going to have a more lasting impact than passive lessons about things to which she is not really ready to relate.

Second, while young children may be able to form and store some memories, they might not be able to find them easily. There are explicit memories – those that we use all the time and know exactly where they are, and implicit memories – those that are in the storeroom but we lost track of. For instance, who was the first president? George Washington. Now, who was the second president? You don’t remember? Here’s a list of names. Richardson, Colbert, Adams, Packer. That’s right. John Adams. It was in there, you just couldn’t find it without assistance.

So if your young child doesn’t remember something, don’t assume she can’t. She merely may need help. She comes in from playing outside and you ask, “Where is your jacket?” She replies, “I don’t know.” You ask, “Did you leave it on the playground?” She replies, “I don’t know!” You ask, “Did you leave it at Mary’s house?” She replies, “Yeah! I left it at Mary’s house!” In other words, when it comes to dealing with the memory of a young child, don’t expect too much and don’t give up too soon.