When children forget something they’ve just learned — instructions, emergency contact info — it’s reasonable to assume they weren’t paying attention in the first place. It’s also possible they listened, learned and promptly forgot. But here’s the catch: They may actually remember the details tomorrow, just not today.
That’s what a new study from Ohio State University says. Researchers in the school’s cognitive development lab found that children can forget newly learned information, only to remember it a few days later.
According to a university release, 82 preschoolers, aged four and five, played three rounds of a picture association game on a computer. They saw pairs of objects (e.g. a baseball cap and a rabbit), and received instructions as to which object belonged to Mickey Mouse and which belonged to Winnie the Pooh. The kids had to match the objects with the correct cartoon characters, and did so with ease. For the second round, researchers mixed up the object-character pairs so the kids had to learn new associations.
Researchers then divided the kids into two groups. One played a third round, during which the original object-character pairs were reintroduced. The other group of kids waited two days to play the same third round.
Previous research suggests that young children have trouble making complex connections in the moment. Given time to digest and sleep on the information, would they exhibit sharper recall? The answer is yes. The first group played as though they were seeing the matches for the first time. The two-days-later group performed much better.
Adult memories tend to fade over time, so it’s only natural that we assume the same of our children. That doesn’t seem to be case; their minds work a bit differently. The researchers don’t suggest that parents should use this neurological curiosity to help their kids cram state capitals and multiplication tables. Rather, youngsters may actually retain a reasonable “kid-sized” amount of information, even if it doesn’t seem so in the moment.
“The takeaway message,” said study co-author Kevin Darby in the release, “is that kids can experience extreme forgetting, and the counter-intuitive way to fight it is to let time pass.”