Memories in training

Memories in training
Memory develops as the brain matures, so children are naturally able to retain more information as they get older.

Memory develops as the brain matures, so children are naturally able to retain more information as they get older.

Babies form their earliest memories even before being born. The sounds and other stimulations they experience in the womb leave behind traces in the brain. “This helps them distinguish between what’s familiar and what’s new,” explains neuropsychologist Sarah Lippé, a professor at the Université de Montréal whose research focuses on cerebral mechanisms for learning in children. “It’s how newborns are able to recognize their parents’ voices and faces.

It’s also how babies recognize their mother’s smell, or remember nursery rhymes they heard repeatedly during the final trimester of pregnancy.

Using this capacity for recognition, toddlers are able to retain information for a certain amount of time. This was demonstrated in a study in which babies were connected to a mobile by tying a ribbon to their ankles. When the babies kicked their legs, the mobile would move. On average, the 2month-olds remembered the game for 3 days, while 6month-olds remembered it for 14 days. In general, a child can remember a sequence of actions with an object for a full year by the age of 20 months.

A time and place for every memory

People have not one but several types of memories, and each plays a different role.

Sensory memory

Sensory memory processes information obtained through the senses. It begins to develop before birth, as it doesn’t require verbalization. Two-year-old Adam, for example, listens to a lot of music with his family. “He started humming at 16 months,” says Adam’s dad, Clériston. “He doesn’t sing the words, but he starts to hum as soon as he hears the first notes of certain songs.”

Procedural memory

Procedural memory also begins to develop at a very young age. This is the memory of gestures, which helps a child develop skills such as walking, swimming, using a spoon, riding a bike, or tying shoelaces. Once a child has gotten the hang of them, the series of actions associated with these skills become second nature. Remembering them no longer requires a conscious effort.

Semantic memory

Semantic memory is how children acquire knowledge with each new experience. It can be thought of as a continually expanding bank of information used to store everything from colours, smells, and the meanings of words to numbers, important dates, and the appearance and purpose of different objects.

Episodic memory

When your child tells you what she ate for lunch or about a birthday party she went to, she is drawing upon her episodic memory. “This type of memory is used to recall details about past events,” says Marion Noulhiane, a researcher at the NeuroSpin neuroimaging research centre in France and a professor at Paris Descartes University. Episodic memory plays a minor role before the age of 2, developing mainly between the ages of 2 and 7, and peaking after the 5-year mark.

Since their brains are still developing, however, children forget recent events—sometimes even things they did earlier the same day. “Childcare educators will often remind kids of the activities they’ve done,” says Lippé. “At lunchtime, for example, they might ask which park the class went to and what game they played. Then they’ll ask the same questions again while the children are eating their snacks. Doing this gives them a better chance of being able to answer when their parents ask about their day.”

Short- and long-term memory
All forms of memory can be either short- or long-term. Short-term memory stores information for a matter of seconds. If the information is repeated or a child tries to remember it, it becomes part of his long-term memory, where it can remain for days, months, or even a lifetime.

Memory training

Your child’s memory will develop naturally, but there are ways you can help it along. Memory games, for example, where you flip over cards to find the matching images can give your child’s visual memory a workout.

For Geneviève Cadoret, a professor and member of the Qualité des contextes éducatifs de la petite enfance (Quality of early childhood educational contexts) research team at UQAM, these exercises are all well and good, but the other four senses are just as important for memory development. Memories of sounds, smells, tastes, and touch “all work in concert to help children better understand their environment,” Cadoret explains. “It’s by using all of their senses that children learn to associate Daddy’s voice with his face, an animal with its cry, a food with its taste, and so on.”

Here are a few memory-stimulating games that test the senses:

  • Guessing the objects in a bag based on touch
  • Identifying different smells while blindfolded
  • Matching sounds with images (e.g., a revving engine with a truck, meowing with a cat)
  • Learning a nursery rhyme or basic dance moves
Good memory, good grades
Children with a good working memory tend to do better in school. Working memory helps retain information and apply it to different tasks. It requires the ability to follow and remember instructions and to focus without becoming distracted.



Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, October 2017
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Miriam Beauchamp, director of the ABCs Developmental Neuropsychology Lab, Université de Montréal and Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Centre


Photos: GettyImages/Freemixer (top) and Maxim Morin (bottom)