Toddler memory

Help your child to develop their memory

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Child psychologist Dr Richard Woolfson explains how your toddler’s memory develops, and how you can help its development as she grows.

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Memory is such an important part of your child’s understanding, no matter what age she is. Watch your toddler search for her favourite toy – not only does she think, “I remember that toy,” she also thinks, “I remember where I left it!” And when your 3-year-old is crying as you collect her from nursery, she uses memory to recall that one of the children annoyed or upset her that morning. Memory helps your child learn and it provides the building blocks with which she constructs her understanding of the world.

As a toddler, she can even remember aspects of her earlier childhood. Psychologists played a range of sounds to children aged between 1 and 10 months, and also let them hold a variety of objects. Two years later – without meeting the psychologists in between – the children repeated the experience. Their behaviour revealed that they remembered many of the sounds and objects.

How does your toddler’s memory develop?

1 year

Give your 1-year-old a simple instruction, such as “Pass me the cup, please”, making sure she looks at you as you speak. She’ll pay attention, remember what you asked, then give you the cup.

2 years

Let your child play with a wooden puzzle – the type where two or three pieces fit inside a wooden frame. Time how long it takes her to complete the puzzle from start to finish. Then give her a new puzzle. You’ll find she completes this quicker than the first one.

3 years

Teach your child a brand new song. At first, she might only be able to remember the last word
of each line. But with practice, she’ll eventually learn the entire song from start to finish.

4 years

Many children of this age learn three or four colour names (such as red, yellow, blue), some basic shape names (such as circle, triangle) and might be able to recite the names of the numbers from one to 10.

5 years

Ask your child lots of questions about school, about her teacher, about the day’s activities, about the other children in her class and so on. Some children are more communicative than others, but whatever the level of her replies, listen closely to her.

Types of memory

  • Visual: She remembers sights – she recognises your face.
  • Hearing: She remembers sounds – she reacts to the sound of her name being called.
  • Olfactory: She remembers smells and tastes – she knows she likes certain foods.
  • Kinaesthetic: She remembers movements – she realises that shaking the toy makes a noise.
  • Semantic: She remembers words – she knows that a specific word refers to a specific object.

The more types of memory that are involved, the easier she learns and remembers. For instance, if you want to teach your 3-year-old a nursery rhyme, say it to her (hearing and semantic memory), show her pictures of it in a book (visual memory) and encourage her to act out the rhyme with you (kinaesthetic memory). You could even let her eat a biscuit in the shape of the rhyme’s central character (olfactory memory).

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What can you do to help your toddler’s memory?

  • Make eye contact: Look into your child’s eyes when you give her information you want her to remember (for instance, when you ask her to follow an instruction)
  • Give lots of practice: When your child is learning something new (for instance, the name of a colour), encourage her to practise saying it over and over again
  • Use her name: Your child is more likely to recall what you tell her if you put her name somewhere in the sentence. The name grabs her attention
  • Make it fun: She’ll love playing memory games (for instance, when pairs of cards are turned face down and she has to find the matching pairs.

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