Strengthening your child’s memory at the playground

Published on Wednesday, 01 September 2021
Last updated on Monday, 30 August 2021

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Parents and grandparents can be prone to forgetfulness, and although it’s important to strengthen our ‘memory muscles’ in later life, it’s also important to train your child’s brain to remember information and recall it when needed.

A good memory builds a strong foundation for early learning, and the American neuroscientist, Lisa Genova, suggests that we can all enhance our memory by improving our noticing skills. That is, by perceiving things with our senses, and paying attention to them.

This means that although a card game, like Concentration, will exercise your preschooler’s recall powers, you can also use a trip to the playground to give their memory muscles a work-out, and help them become better ‘noticers’ and, in turn, learners.

Today, we share expert techniques for remembering through play.

What do you need to do, and pack, to bolster your child’s memory?

Karen Malone is a Professor in Environmental Sustainability and Childhood Studies at Swinburne University of Technology, and she explains that you can use a playground excursion to enhance your child’s memory by:

  • Paying attention
  • Taking things slow
  • Mind mapping
  • Enhancing the senses
  • Rehearsing, and
  • Mixing things up.

Before you head out, Professor Malone recommends that you pack some:

  • ‘Noticing tools,’ like a pair of binoculars or a magnifying glass for close inspections
  • Small figurines and/or toy cars for storytelling and mud play
  • Creative materials, like chalk for pavement drawing, play dough for natural sculptures, watercolours and paper for painting, and crayons for handprint tracing and bark/leaf rubbings, plus
  • Snacks and drinks to give your little explorer sustenance.

Once you’re ready to go, set off for a playground that offers space, greenery and different experiences, such as a playground nestled in parkland.

1. On the way to the playground, create a slow and steady mind map

Professor Malone explains that, ‘Humans use mind mapping to create maps of our immediate environment to navigate our surroundings. Our brain is wired to recall where things are located in space,’ so while you’re taking plenty of time to walk to the playground, you and your child are encouraged to really notice things by:

  • Running your hands across fence palings and stone walls
  • Smelling aromatic plants, like pine needles, lavender or rosemary
  • Collecting natural loose items, like leaves and seed pods, that can be used later in paintings and potions, and
  • Drawing chalk pictures on the path to help you navigate your way home (e.g. pictures of fish if you strolled past a watercourse).

Professor Malone says, ‘This pace may seem slow, but to really notice, you need to slow down. A lot of neural work is happening as children construct a mind map. The more time adds detail to the memory.’

2. Once you’re at the playground, it’s time to exercise your child’s mind muscles

Give them time to play on the equipment until they’re puffed out and physically tired, then put your child’s little grey calls to work – first by relaxing the mind, then ‘rehearsing’ with it.

In practice, Professor Malone recommends that you:

  • Pause to think about the different ‘layers of the playground’, including the earth, grasses, bugs, leaves, plants, birds and sky
  • Quieten the mind by lying on your backs side-by-side and closing your eyes to relax into the experience
  • Encourage them to look, smell, feel and listen to enhance their senses, e.g. by stopping to look at bugs through a magnifying glass, smell a flower, touch rough bark and listen to birds
  • Encourage your child to make small worlds [can link to small world play story published earlier in sep] and tell stories with their toys, e.g. your child might create a fairy world amongst the leaves, or act out an animal safari in the sandpit, and
  • Set them up to do something arty, e.g. paint some flowers, pile stones and play dough together into a sculpture, or do a bark rubbing.

Professor Malone says it’s important to enhance your child’s different senses through meaningful encounters, because this helps with their perceptions and recall by creating multi-neural pathways.

Neural pathways are the series of connected neurons that send signals from one part of the brain to another. They allow us to interact, experience emotions, and feel sensations, and they also create our memories and enable us to learn.

Storytelling with objects also strengthens your child’s memory because it helps your child to, ‘Revisit positive and negative experiences they have encountered’ and project emotions through their object play.

When your child projects a positive emotion (like happiness), Professor Malone says this enhances their, ‘Recall to re-activate past positive emotions,’ and they learn to connect cues with associations and build ‘significant new repertoires’ they can draw on later.

3. Repeat the playground experience with a ‘same but different’ approach

Lisa Genova says, ‘Sameness is the kiss of death to memory,’ so instead of always going to the same playground and doing the same things, Professor Malone recommends that you, ‘Step out of set routines and mix things up’ to help your child remember more of what you’ve done together.

You might choose a new playground, take along varied objects (e.g. cars instead of animals), or think up a different creative endeavour, and you can also ‘retell and reactivate’ your child’s playground experience at bedtime by sharing:

  • Photos you took
  • Natural items they collected
  • Artworks they made, or
  • A map you’ve drawn up, showing the walk to the playground, the equipment they played on and other important bits.

At the end of the day, good noticing skills will help both of you remember great times, so get out there and see what you can see!


The Conversation

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