It’s been three full weeks that I have been exploring memory performance in preschool children. I’ve been spending all my days at the Children’s School, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Not only do I get to enjoy time in the sun and fresh air (instead of being stuck at a desk all day), but I also get help shaping my research project from the children themselves. Playing some memory games with them for the past two weeks has helped me think more deeply about what I want to study, what I can actually study within the available time, and how to make the study as engaging as possible for the children. Finding a balance between all three is no easy feat, much more complex than I anticipated, but thankfully the summer is just heating up (literally).
In the first week of the fellowship, before the Children’s School Summer Camp began, I started my literature review by reading about short term memory (immediate memory for an event that just occurred), long term memory (memory for events and knowledge that were previously encountered), and, most importantly for my research project, working memory, or memory that stores information to be readily available for use. I predicted that working memory would be the focus of my project, but had not thought of how often working memory operates implicitly in our everyday lives.
Of the different ways working memory is used, the two broad topics that struck me were communicating and problem solving. It hadn’t occurred to me how much working memory helps us communicate, mainly because my working memory is not impaired. One of the books I have been reading (A Mind At A Time) explained memory in the context of memory impairment, which highlighted why studying memory is important. As I write this blog post, my working memory is holding reading and writing knowledge so that I have it available when I need to know how to spell a word or where to add punctuation. With an impairment, it would be difficult to remember the beginning of the sentence by the time I get to the end, which might cause the sentence to not make sense, or sound choppy and disconnected. These impairment effects also impact spoken communication, where we need to remember the beginning of the sentence in order to finish it. More importantly, we need to remember the previous parts of a conversation in order to continue talking appropriately about a topic.
With problem solving, much of the same idea applies. We have to remember the problem we are facing to find a solution. The job of working memory is to hold the problem and its components and have them ready for reference while we search our long term memory for the best solution and related steps. If we keep forgetting the problem parts while devising a solution, the problem may never get solved! Setting goals and performing tasks also falls under problem solving. For example, we have all faced a moment where we walk into a room and forget why we came. This situation probably happens to everyone once in awhile, but imagine if we always forgot what we wanted to do while we were trying to do it. From my recent readings, I realized that working memory is crucial to getting anything done, because without it, we wouldn’t be able to hold together parts of ideas as they develop, devise parts of a plan to solve problems or complete tasks, or bridge the gap between short and long term memory.
Furthermore, with memory comes attention. We can’t remember what we don’t notice. One of the challenges I encountered is making the games interesting enough to keep the children’s attention, which will be important if I am trying to facilitate working memory strategies through memory games. However, from all the games I have played in the past two weeks, I have a better understanding of what motivates children and what to say to keep them engaged. For example, I was surprised when many children kept asking for a version of the basic memory matching game where they had to match items with opposite meanings. I thought there might be reluctance to play because the idea of opposites is more complicated than necessary for the game, and might have caused more failures in making matches. Instead, I found that the children requested games with more complex images more often. They are more attentive toward the games that have faces or complex images, preferring the challenge over the simplest version of the game with concrete objects for which the children have labels. When talking to the children, I have to be animated and speak loudly to keep their attention on the games, especially when competing with the pools and art projects at camp. So far, I found that the most effective way to keep their focus is to ask the children for help when I am taking a turn during the game. They seem more motivated to pay attention when they feel like they are helping me improve my performance, which then improves their own.
I am now even more convinced about the importance of studying memory and especially the importance of improving memory ability and strategies in young children, while their brains have the most ability to adapt to and use such strategies. There are a lot of details that need to be worked out, and I have about five weeks left in Pittsburgh with Dr. Carver and only two with the children at camp to do so. It takes a village to raise a child, and it might take the entire Children’s School population (with my hedgehog mascot named Seagull) to determine the focus and methods of my research project before the summer ends, but if the first three weeks were any indication, it will no doubt be something to remember.