From birth, children are learning all the time – to recognize faces, hold up their heads, walk, talk, and feed themselves. Remembering events, facts, or information comes much later. When do children start laying down memories? At what age do children memorize?
Children lay down implicit or automatic memories from birth. Only when the brain develops from ages two to six can children make explicit long-term memories of social skills, cognitive skills, literacy skills (speaking, alphabetic, phonics), and numeracy skills (counting and writing numerals).
As parents and caregivers, we wonder when to start teaching children skills, from feeding themselves to learning colors, numbers, or letters of the alphabet. While children are never too young to learn, there are ages at which children’s brain development is best for learning and memorizing.
At What Age Do Children Memorize?
Children begin forming memories at the age of two, and by the age of seven, their memories will function as an adult’s does.
In terms of memorizing or learning, these are typical milestones
Memory Milestones Between Six And Eighteen Months
Between six and eighteen months, children learn and remember:
- physical milestones: rolling, sitting, crawling, walking
- social and emotional milestones: recognizing familiar faces, playing with toys, understanding simple instructions, e.g., “no,” copying adults
- language and communication milestones: smiling, laughing, babbling, saying words, waving bye-bye, recognizing own name,
- cognitive milestones: pointing to and grabbing items, closing the mouth to say “no,” looking for a hidden object or person.
Memory Milestones Between Two And Six Years
After two, children memorize what we recognize as information or learning in a school sense. We will look at why learning happens so quickly at this age in the next section.
A two-year-old memory milestones:
- says two-word sentences
- identifies self, family, parts of the body
- sings ABC song and other simple nursery rhymes (not with understanding)
- recognizes emotions using gestures
- plays simple games
- climbs, kicks a ball, runs.
A three-year-old memory milestones:
- says own name if asked
- speaks simply but understandably and asks questions
- identifies objects when pointed out
- draws shapes, names colors, repeats words of a rhyme, recognizes some letters of the alphabet and their wounds
- starts counting
- gets dressed, feeds themself with a fork.
A four-year-old memory milestones:
- learns simple rhymes and songs
- says four or more word sentences, and asks and answers questions
- predicts events in a story
- comforts and helps others
- enjoys imaginative play
- knows the letters of the alphabet in order
- counts items.
A five to six-year-old memory milestones:
- does simple chore
- tells stories or events
- recognizes rhyming words
- counts items out to 10 and writes numerals
- knows the alphabet and can identify letters,
- reads and writes their name and simple words
- sings, dances, acts, hops
- does buttons and shoelaces.
Peak Memorization Period: Two To Seven Years
Between two and seven years, children’s brains go through a critical period of growth. The number of connections between brain cells doubles. These connections are where learning occurs, so an increase in the number of connections enables the child’s brain to learn faster than at any other time of life.
Children’s experiences and education in the phase between two and seven have lasting effects on their development, as they are the prime years for learning. These years provide a critical opportunity for parents, carers, and teachers to lay the foundation for a child’s education in all areas.
Education needs to be seen widely here. Although learning the alphabet and mathematical skills are essential, this period should focus on fostering a broader love of learning and curiosity about the world, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills. Children’s brains absorb information about all aspects of their experiences.
Research suggests that after seven years, some skills become more difficult to acquire – language learning is one of these. The years between two and seven are vital for children to learn to speak, read, and write, and brain development allows for this to happen in more than one language. Another skill is music. Although children and adults can learn a language and music skills later, it will be more challenging.
How Do Children Memorize?
It is helpful to look at how human memory works to understand how children learn and memorize.
Memory does not form in just one part or system of the brain. There are different areas of memory, each of which plays an important role.
The first stage of memorizing or laying down memories is encoding. The encoding system of the memory transforms internal events (thoughts) and external events (experiences) into either short-term or long-term memory. How well a memory is encoded depends on how well you’re paying attention and how often it is repeated or rehearsed.
Short-term, active, or primary memory allows you to remember information or instructions for a very brief period – sometimes only a few seconds. Depending on whether you make an effort to retain them (by repetition and maintenance, for example), short-term memories can become long-term memories.
A good example is getting a phone number – you may remember it for a short time but either repeat it several times or write it down to retain it later.
Most adults can only remember seven elements at a time, and children even fewer – this explains why adults get annoyed with children who can’t remember a list of instructions they’ve been given.
Working memory links to short-term memory but deals with how the brain uses or manipulates the information it is holding in short-term memory.
Working memory improves as we age, with adults’ working memories twice as effectively as those of young children. Experts suggest that attention span plays a significant role in developing working memory.
Long-term memory stores memories for the long term. There are two types of long-term memory.
Implicit Long-term Memory
Implicit, unconscious, or automatic memories refer to information you don’t purposefully remember – these are unintentional memories. In other words, you don’t have to think about remembering implicit memories.
Many implicit memories are procedural or motor memories laid down by repetition: how to type on a computer or how to make a cup of coffee. Often, these memories are associated with a specific context or cues that nudge you to perform an action.
Children begin laying down implicit memories from birth, learning how to do things that become automatic, from navigating their surroundings to learning to dress themselves or how to use a spoon or fork effectively. Before the age of seven, most memories are implicit.
Explicit Long-term Memory
Explicit or declarative memories are those you can consciously recall and remember, for example, dates of events, mathematical formulae, or a description of a vacation. Explicit memory is intentional.
Children only begin laying down explicit memory from two, although most memory remains implicit until seven years. This phenomenon is called childhood amnesia – that is, most people can’t remember their baby years or toddler years in any detail.
The reason for childhood amnesia is that a part of the brain called the hippocampus, required for explicit memory, only develops at the age of three or four years. After that age, children’s memories become more stable, and children’s ability to remember explicitly improves.
There are two main kinds of explicit memory.
Episodic Long-term Memory
Episodic memories are memories of personal events and the feelings associated with them. For example, a child may remember Christmas morning, who was there, what people said about their gifts, what they were eating, and how the child felt.
As you can imagine, making and retrieving an episodic memory includes several different processes and parts of the brain. A smell may trigger an episodic memory, causing you to remember sitting on a bench with your grandmother while she braided your hair. You may then experience emotions associated with the memory, such as nostalgia, joy, or a sense of security.
Children can recall episodic memories between two and seven, but newer ones overlay these memories during brain development. Memories made after the age of seven are retained because the brain’s ability to bind, store and recall events improves.
Semantic Long-term Memory
Semantic memory stores facts and information, such as phone numbers, people’s birthdays, items on a shopping list, or geographical concepts like map reading. Semantic memory is helpful for school-related learning, as you recall facts you’ve learned.
Children start laying down semantic memories from the age of two – they can learn shapes, colors, and names. By the ages of three or four years, most children can learn the letters of the alphabet, and by five or six, sounds associated with letters and numbers. People refer to this kind of learning as memorization.
Semantic memory develops best when paying attention, so children with attention-deficit difficulties have trouble recalling information.
Recall is not a form of memory but a system of accessing memories, rather like an internet search or filing system. This recall can be subconscious, like when a fact pops into your head if asked a question, or conscious, like thinking about a past event to remember and describe it.
Recall skills are higher-order thinking or cognitive skills that develop with age, including:
- organization of information
- create associations between facts
- compare information.
Memory and memorization are complex systems of processes that occur in the brain. Children begin learning and memorizing from birth but can only lay down long-term conscious memories from two. The prime period for memorization is between the ages of two and seven.