It often feels as if preschoolers remember everything, from the playdate they had with their best friend six months ago to the chocolate milk they reminded you to buy yesterday at the grocery store. "The reason that 4- and 5-year-olds remember more than adults do is that they're not yet able to discern what's important and what's not," says Carolyn Rovee-Collier, PhD, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, and a specialist in pediatric memory development. "As kids get older, they become more selective in what they learn and remember, which means that certain memories from early childhood will stay with them, while others won't." But how much of his preschool years will he remember when he's older? And more to the point, can you do anything to make all the wonderful times and special people stick in his head? Thankfully, yes. He just needs a little help from you to ensure these precious memories make the cut.
Because memories are stored and accessed through words, kids rarely retain anything that happened before they can talk. "That's why people don't remember experiences from infancy," explains Lise Eliot, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School. "Once kids can verbalize things in detail, they're far more likely to remember them."
Make an impression: Help kids develop their ability to narrate their own experiences by talking about your time together. For example, after a trip to Grandma's house, ask your child what her favorite part of the visit was and what she wants to do again. Another conversation starter: Look at photos together and describe the scene. Pull up a slide show on your computer and say, "In that picture, you're wearing your favorite purple jacket. What else are you wearing?" Having your child tell you about where you were, what you did, and what she loved most will help her paint a vivid image of the scene, making it easier to recall.
Telling a story over and over again boosts the odds your child will remember it. "When a child is repeatedly prompted to recall the same things, it's more likely the information will be stored in his long-term memory in a way that's easier to retrieve," says Dr. Rovee-Collier. In a similar way, family rituals, such as an annual trip to the beach or having pizza for dinner every Friday night, are memories that are more likely to stick. And when repeat experiences are out of the ordinary, there's an even greater chance your child will remember them. "Because there are so many constants in a preschooler's life, something that's surprising will make a child take note of its details," she explains.
Make an impression: Come up with traditions that take place on a regular basis, like having dessert after breakfast on the last day of school. Or turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. For instance, have a "pool party" in the bathtub (complete with swimsuits and sunglasses) on your child's birthday.
If you react positively to a situation, it helps your child's brain discern whether it's important to remember it. Unfortunately, the same is true for negative reactions from you. Ask anybody what some of their first memories are and you'll undoubtedly get a mix of good ones and bad ones.
Make an impression: Let your excitement show, whether it's for a movie you went to see as a family or for your child's T-ball game. And when it comes to the less happy stuff, trust your child will be okay even if he does recall tougher moments.
A lot of what adults end up remembering comes down to what's most personally meaningful. Because kids haven't had enough experiences to determine what's significant, they remember best when they can link one personal experience to another similar one. For example, your child will recall having circle time in the kindergarten classroom if he also had it in preschool. Or he'll remember the outing to the local carnival if he also went to the amusement park.
Make an impression: Bring up the past. For example, when you're on vacation and having fun in the hotel's playground, remind your child about the one at the hotel you stayed at last year. Say, "Wow, this is just like that other one we went to before, but it also has a tube slide. What else is the same? What else looks different?" Bonus: These kinds of chats will help you remember all the fun times too.
Put a spin on these classic games to raise your preschooler's recall ability.
Hide five stuffed animals in different spots. Tell your child to find them and take them to you. Ask him to put them in their hiding places.
Instead of describing something you spot while driving in the car, see who can guess something you remember from the last big road trip.
Play as usual for a bit, then tell your child that Simon wants him to do the same thing that he asked him to do at the start of the game.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Parents magazine.