Stop and take a few seconds to answer the following question: What is 11 x 12? If you used mental math, you likely visualized the numbers in your mind and kept track of the numbers and their place value. If you used a calculator, you kept the equation in your mind as you plugged in the numbers. You might’ve even skipped solving the problem and just kept it in mind as you read to see if we’d tell you the answer (132). Whether you stopped to solve it mentally, looked away to plug it into your calculator, or waited for the answer, you just used your memory, specifically your working memory.
The memory skills we have as adults begin developing during early childhood. In this article, we’ll dive into working memory and memory development, their importance, and strategies and activities you can use to promote cognitive development in your early childhood education program.
Memory development in early childhood
Early childhood is a time when children learn and develop in key developmental domains—cognitive, physical, language, and social-emotional. As with all skills, children have a limited ability in infancy that strengthens over time. The same applies to memory and memory development.
Memory is our ability to process and keep information. It involves acquiring, storing, retaining, and later recalling what we learned or experienced. Many of us have little to no recollection of our time as infants, which could lead you to believe the memory of a child is nonexistent. That is not the case. Young children can recall memories, but this ability is closely tied to a developed sense of self, which usually develops around two years old. A child’s ability to differentiate between themselves and others lays the groundwork for organizing their memories, as it applies to them personally.
In infancy, memory is not fully developed, but early childhood, from birth to age five, is a crucial time for developing memory. While a child’s memory relies on their developed sense of self, it also depends on their cognitive thinking skills and their understanding. Imagine watching a simple movie that you easily understand versus one that confused you. Which do you think you’d have a better chance of remembering? It would likely be the first. The same goes for children. When children are introduced to information or experience events that they don’t fully understand, they are less likely to remember them or remember them correctly.
Educators play a critical role in helping children develop the skills they need to think backward and develop their memory. Through play-based learning, you can foster language development, creativity and imagination, and social-emotional skills—which help children ask questions, organize their ideas, and understand their thoughts and feelings.
Although memory is a cognitive skill, it affects all areas of early childhood development, and a child’s memory capacity has implications on their success inside and outside the classroom. Memory affects how children think and learn. It influences their problem-solving and language skills as well as their ability to plan and follow directions. Memory allows them to remember people, experiences, and events. And while it happens subconsciously, memory even allows children to develop skills like riding a bike through muscle memory.
And because “memory” is so broad, it can be categorized into different types in the cognitive development process. These categories are:
- Short-term memory
- Long-term memory
- Working memory
Short-term memory is the cognitive ability to store, retain, and recall small amounts of information for a short time. Capacity and duration are key elements of short-term memory, in that limited pieces of information can be held for a limited time. Typically, up to seven items can be stored at a time for approximately 15 to 30 seconds. For example, a child might use their short-term memory to remember the appearance of a classmate they just met or to remember what happened a few seconds ago in a movie.
Considered a type of short-term memory, sensory memory allows you to retain sensory information after a stimulus has ended. The memory is active as long as the senses are being stimulated. Because sensory information is tied to our senses, there are five types of sensory memory: echoic (hearing), gustatory (taste), haptic (touch), iconic (sight), and olfactory (smell). Imagine you’re standing outside, and a raindrop lands on your skin. This stimulus activates your touch senses, and your haptic memory records the feeling, helping your mind and body make the connection that it’s raining.
Your long-term memory is anything you can recall after 30 seconds. These memories can range in significance, like whether a child remembers the name of a character from a TV show they watched that morning or remembers their birthday. There are two types of long-term memory—implicit and explicit.
Implicit long-term memory, sometimes called non-declarative, includes memories that form subconsciously. They are often related to motor skills and are typically associated with actions you might refer to as muscle memory. This includes actions like tying your shoes or shooting a basketball. If you’ve gone five years without riding a bike, your implicit memory will help you remember how to do it.
Explicit long-term memory, or declarative memory, is your ability to form and recall information that you consciously took the time to learn. Long-term memory is considered to be episodic or semantic. Episodic memory is how you store long-term information about particular events (or episodes) that you’ve experienced. For example, you might remember what you wore on the first day of school last year. Semantic memory is how you store information about the world. It includes general knowledge as well as vocabulary. When completing a crossword puzzle, your ability to remember that Dr. Seuss is the author of The Cat in the Hat is a conscious thought and demonstrates that your semantic memory allows you to store this information.
Working memory is sometimes used interchangeably with short-term memory. While both allow you to store information for a short time, the two function differently.
What is working memory?
Working memory is an executive functioning skill that we use to form and store memories and process information. It is a type of short-term memory that involves the temporary storage of information we’re mentally manipulating. This could be as abstract as an idea or as concrete as an object. While short-term memory includes remembering the name of someone you met a few seconds ago, working memory involves remembering a person named at the beginning of a sentence. The ability to remember their name is significant to how your mind processes and makes sense of the rest of the statement.
For preschoolers, working memory can look like following a group of directions. If you tell your children to put away their toys, wash their hands, and then take out their snacks, their working memory kicks in to help them remember the process in order. While they may not remember the order after snack time, that’s okay. They only needed to remember the information to accomplish the tasks.
Working memory allows your brain to hold new information at the moment and use it to plan, understand, reason, and problem-solve.
Why is working memory important?
Working memory isn’t a skill you develop and then never use again. It is an ability we call on daily. You use it to remember someone’s email address, for example. Your working memory allows you to ask for directions and remember them until you get to your destination. As an adult, you’ve likely gained a well-rounded set of skills; however, working memory can help children learn and develop cognitive and language skills they need to be successful during their early childhood education and beyond.
Although it isn’t the only factor that affects attention, working memory can improve focus and concentration in toddlers. When they are able to process and remember instructions, you can give them the freedom to work independently, with the confidence that they’ll complete the task correctly.
Working memory is also directly linked to a child’s language skills. First, working memory helps children become stronger readers. When children learn how to read, they use their working memory to recall the sounds of letters long enough to sound out the entire word. Second, it affects reading comprehension skills. When a child reads a paragraph, they use their working memory to recall what happened at the beginning so they can make sense of the information when they get to the end of the paragraph. If they’re experiencing challenges in reading comprehension, it might look like they have trouble with the language when it could possibly be a working memory issue.
Working memory has many positive effects on children. It can boost problem-solving skills and help children develop skills for mental math. Ultimately, a strong foundation for developing working memory has a lasting impact on a child’s academic and non-academic success.
How to improve working memory
Like most skills, working memory is an ability you can help your children develop and strengthen. You can use the following strategies to improve working memory and promote cognitive development in your early childhood education program.
Visualization is when you form a mental image of something. For example, when you make a packing list, you might bring up an image of each item in your mind. Have your preschoolers close their eyes and do visualization exercises where you encourage them to create a picture in their minds of something they just heard or read. Try describing a house and ask them to picture it in their minds before drawing it on a piece of paper. Visualization can help decrease the load of working memory by allowing the mind to make connections that are easier to recall.
The purpose of chunking or grouping information is to break it down into easier, more manageable pieces. When large amounts of information are divided into more digestible segments, it’s easier for our brains to remember and recall them. Consider your debit or credit card number. If you tried to remember it as a sequence of 16 numbers, it would likely be harder than trying to remember four groups of four numbers. The same goes for remembering your phone number.
When sharing information with your preschoolers, it’s important to remember to make it as manageable for them as possible. Using the snack example from earlier, you may consider grouping information for them by saying, “Put away your toys, wash your hands, and then take out your snacks”, followed by, “Throw away your trash, put your lunchbox away, and wipe down your desk.”
Help your children make connections and form associations to help them remember information. Mnemonics are a common tool people use to act as a memory aid. For example, ROYGBIV is an acronym used to remember the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. While remembering the acronym is a long-term memory skill, you’d use your working memory to recall which color comes after blue. By teaching your children to make connections with the information they learn, it strengthens their memory and their ability to hold information at that moment.
Become the “student”
What’s happening in your mind as you teach a lesson? You’re likely using your working memory to hold on to the information and use it to guide your children. Switch roles and allow your children to become the teacher. As children learn new information or practice a new skill, teaching the information to you or others can help cement the information and allow them to practice their working memory skills.
Play games and puzzles
Children learn through play. By incorporating games and puzzles into your curriculum, you can strengthen your preschoolers’ executive functioning skills by selecting games that require them to use their working memory. Choose games where the children have to keep the rules of the game in mind as they play.
Working memory activities
Lesson planning can be challenging and time-consuming. While the strategies mentioned above can help you shape your curriculum to include working memory, having a ready-made list of activities that promote cognitive development makes for an easy start. Additionally, a tool like brightwheel’s Experience Curriculum is designed to help you save time during lesson and curriculum planning with digital lessons and hands-on learning materials.
The following activities are easy to incorporate into your early childhood education program and can help your preschoolers learn and develop the skills they need for strong working memory.
As an adult, you may not consider bingo to be a memory game, but it can help your preschoolers strengthen their working memory. While using different topics to make the game more interesting or age-appropriate, you can use this activity to build on language and math skills as your preschoolers recognize and match letters, numbers, or pictures. During this activity, your children have to remember what combination you called out while they look for it on their board. Typically, the leader of this activity may repeat the combination, but if you’d like to increase the difficulty as your children progress, try calling out the combination only once.
Follow the clap
For this activity, all you and your preschoolers need to use are your hands. You can clap short beats with your hands and have children clap them back to you. As your children improve, make the series of claps longer or more complicated to keep strengthening their working memory skills.
I spy is an easy indoor or outdoor activity you can incorporate into your early childhood education program. The objective is to have your children identify a chosen object in their environment based on its description. They’ll need to remember the description as they look around for the item.
For younger children, start with large objects that are obvious. For example, you could say, “I spy something round and orange with black lines” to describe a basketball. Allow your children to take turns as the spy, but make sure you’re in on the “secret” in case they forget their object or need help describing it. In addition to strengthening their working memory, this activity also allows preschoolers to work on their descriptive language skills, which can translate to spoken language and written information comprehension.
While you can use traditional playing cards with aces, kings, and queens, you can also find child-friendly playing cards with different images. For this activity, start by selecting three pairs in the deck. Shuffle them and lay the cards face down on a table. Allow your children to take turns as they select and flip two cards over at a time, trying to make a pair.
Wait a minute
How long can your children hold something in their working memory? The “wait a minute” activity can help you find out. Ask your children a question. For example, “What animal barks?” Have your children wait a minute before answering. The purpose is to see how long they can hold onto their answer without forgetting.
While traditional UNO is usually for children age 7 and older, UNO Junior was created for 3-year-olds and older. A card game like UNO Junior requires children to remember the rules of the game as they play, a direct practice of their working memory skills. They’ll need to remember that they can get rid of their cards by matching them to the color, animal, or number at the top of the deck. Plus, they’ll need to remember the most entertaining part of the game—yelling “UNO!” when they’re down to one card.
If you grew up between the 1980s and early 2000s, you may recall the popular hand game Concentration 64. It often started with the chant: "Concentration, 64, no repeats, or hesitations, I’ll start, by saying names, of _________." Children clap their hands where the commas are, and each player says something new that hasn’t already been said. For example, if saying names of colors, child one may say “blue,” and child two may say “yellow.” Child three has to remember both answers and then add a different color.
Memory is the cognitive ability to acquire, retain, and recall information. This ability is one of many skills that develop during early childhood. We often think of memory in the short term and long term. While working memory is often considered a type of short-term memory, it acts similar to a sticky note, keeping an idea or object at the front of our minds while we use it to do something else.
There are many ways to help children develop working memory, from using visualization to playing card games like UNO. By incorporating techniques like these in your curriculum, you can create a foundation for your children that unlocks the potential for memory development.