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Short Term Vs. Long Term Memory | Kids

short term vs long term memory illustration. Different memory types infographic.

As a licensed practitioner who works with kids, I know firsthand the challenges that come with helping children develop their memory skills. It’s a complex topic, but understanding the difference between short term and long term memory is crucial for supporting kids’ cognitive development. In this article, we’ll explore what sets these two types of memory apart, and I’ll share some practical strategies you can use to help your child strengthen both their short term and long term memory.

What is Short Term Memory?

Short term memory refers to the brain’s ability to hold onto a small amount of information for a brief period of time, usually just a few seconds. It’s like a mental scratch pad where we jot down information we need in the moment, but don’t necessarily need to remember long-term. For example, when you look up a phone number and repeat it to yourself until you’ve dialed it, you’re using your short term memory.

Kids rely on their short term memory constantly throughout the day – to remember instructions from a teacher, to keep track of where they put down a toy, or to recall the steps in a game they’re playing with friends. Research has shown that short term memory abilities are strongly linked to academic performance, especially in areas like reading comprehension and math.

short term vs long term memory young kids doing yoga
Read more: How To Improve Short Term Memory in Kids

Short Term Memory Capacity in Kids

So how much information can a child’s short term memory hold? It depends on their age and individual development, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Toddlers (ages 2-3): 2-3 pieces of information
  • Preschoolers (ages 3-5): 3-4 pieces of information
  • School-age children (ages 5-11): 5-7 pieces of information

Keep in mind that some kids, including those with thinking and learning differences like ADHD or dyslexia, may have more difficulty with short term memory compared to their peers. But the good news is that short term memory skills can be improved with practice and the right strategies, which we’ll get into later.

What is Long Term Memory?

In contrast to the temporary storage of short term memory, long term memory is like your brain’s permanent filing cabinet. It stores information over a long period of time, from a few days to decades. Our long term memories shape who we are – they include our knowledge base, life experiences, skills we’ve learned, and personal memories.

For kids, long term memory plays a key role in learning. In order to master new information and skills, children need to be able to encode what they learn into their long term memory and retrieve it later. This process of memory consolidation happens largely during sleep, which is why a consistent sleep schedule is so important for children.

Types of Long Term Memory

Psychologists distinguish between two main types of long term memory:

  1. Explicit (declarative) memory – This is our memory for facts and events. It includes semantic memory (general knowledge) and episodic memory (personal experiences). Explicit memory develops gradually during childhood as brain regions like the hippocampus and frontal lobes mature.
  2. Implicit (procedural) memory – This type of memory is responsible for learned skills and habits, like riding a bike or tying shoelaces. Implicit memory develops earlier than explicit memory and is less affected by age-related changes.
Read more: 5 Long Term Memory Examples in Kids

Strategies to Improve Short Term and Long Term Memory in Kids

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how memory works, let’s talk about some practical ways to help kids strengthen their memory skills. These strategies can be especially helpful for children with special needs who may struggle more with memory, but they’re beneficial for all kids:

1. Break information into small chunks

Remember the limits of short term memory we discussed earlier? You can help your child work within those limits by breaking down information into bite-sized pieces. For example, if you’re teaching them a new phone number, have them repeat back the first three digits, then the next three, and so on.

2. Use multi-sensory learning

Engaging multiple senses helps kids encode information into long term memory more effectively. Try incorporating visuals, physical movement, and music into learning whenever possible. For instance, if your child is learning new vocabulary words, have them act out the meaning or draw a picture to go with each word.

3. Encourage active recall

Simply re-reading information isn’t very effective for committing it to long term memory. Instead, have your child practice actively retrieving the information from memory. You can do this through quizzing, having them teach the concept to someone else, or asking them to summarize what they’ve learned in their own words.

4. Leverage the power of stories

Our brains are wired to remember stories. Whenever possible, try to present information to your child in the form of a narrative. You can even have them make up their own stories or analogies to help them remember key facts or concepts.

5. Promote a healthy lifestyle

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of overall health for memory. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep (9-12 hours per night for school-age kids), eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, and getting regular exercise. All of these healthy habits promote optimal brain function.

With these strategies in your parenting toolbox, you’ll be well-equipped to support your child’s memory development. Just remember that every child is unique, so be patient and don’t hesitate to consult with your child’s teacher, pediatrician, or a learning specialist if you have concerns about your child’s memory or overall cognitive skills.

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Wrapping It Up

Memory is a complex and multi-faceted skill that develops throughout childhood and beyond. By understanding the difference between short term and long term memory, and implementing research-backed strategies to support both, you can give your child a strong foundation for learning and thriving. Most importantly, approach memory development with patience, creativity, and a healthy dose of fun – after all, some of our most enduring long term memories are the joyful moments we share with loved ones.


FAQs about Short Term vs Long Term Memory

What's the difference between short term and long term memory?
Short term memory is the brain's ability to temporarily hold a small amount of information, usually for a few seconds or minutes. Long term memory, on the other hand, stores information for a much longer period, potentially lasting a lifetime.

How much information can short term memory hold?
The capacity of short term memory varies by age, but generally ranges from 2-3 pieces of information for toddlers up to 5-7 pieces for school-age children. Adults can typically hold 7 ± 2 items in their short term memory.

How does information move from short term to long term memory?
Information moves from short term to long term memory through a process called memory consolidation, which involves the strengthening of neural connections. This process occurs primarily during sleep, highlighting the importance of adequate rest for memory formation.

What are some strategies to improve short term memory in kids?
Some effective strategies to boost short term memory in children include chunking information into smaller pieces, using mnemonic devices, and engaging in games or activities that target memory skills. Additionally, ensuring kids get enough sleep, exercise, and healthy nutrition supports overall brain function, including memory.

Can long term memory be lost?
While long term memories are generally more stable and enduring than short term memories, they can still be forgotten over time, especially if the information is rarely accessed or rehearsed. Certain medical conditions, brain injuries, and age-related changes can also impact long term memory retrieval.

This post was originally published on 05/14/2023. It was updated on 06/05/2024.

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