Inside: Things don’t always magically sink into our kids’ brains just because we think it’s a good idea. But with the help of a few LEGO bricks and a piece of paper, you can teach your kids what they need to know about their memory, so they can make the most of it.
When I started taking karate lessons with my sons, I was worried about keeping up with the physical demands of martial arts. When you’re a middle-aged woman with four childbirths behind you, hopping around a padded room with all those tireless and agile six and ten-year-olds can be intimidating.
As it turned out, that was the easy part.
The hard part was remembering all the Japanese words because (surprise!) everything from counting to the names of punches and kicks in karate is taught in Japanese. How did I not know that?!
At first, I tried to learn by osmosis: through the gradual and unconscious immersion in the discipline. If you’re there long enough, something is bound to sink it, right? Wrong. The strange words came in one ear and out the other. After a few months of training, I still couldn’t tell gadan barai from oi zuki, and the numbers confused me.
So, I decided to take a more active approach. I made a list of things I needed to know, organized into thematic sections (stances, punches, numbers, etc.), and in what seemed like no time, I knew everything I needed to know.
And my boys?
Well, we all know how easy it is for young minds to catch a foreign language. Plus, kids are supposed to be naturally better at remembering than sleep-deprived moms, right?
When it comes to memory, a good strategy beats youth. There are still many things about memory that scientists don’t understand, but one thing they all agree on is that understanding how memory works helps you to remember more and learn faster.
The karate experience made me realize something very important. In order for kids (or anyone) to make the most of their memory, they have to understand how their memory works. And as someone with a background in cognitive psychology, I knew just how to go about it.
So one fine day, I got up extra early, and in the dark and quiet hours of the morning, I put together a lesson plan. My goal was to explain to my children how their memory worked, and, most importantly, to convince them that memory could be improved and developed the more they worked on it, just like their karate muscles.
Do you also want to get your kids interested and motivated to improve their memories? Read on!
Disclaimer: the following memory model is just one of many ways to make a complex topic accessible for young kids. It’s simplified and highlights only those features necessary for the current discussion.
Lesson Plan: Memory for Kids
Overview: Memory is considered one of the most important cognitive functions. This lesson is perfect for stretching your kids’ minds and improving their thinking skills.
Objective: This lesson discusses how memory works, why it’s important, and how to use it. It also introduces the concepts of working memory, long-term memory, explicit memory, episodic memory, and implicit memory.
Ages: 7-12 (can be adapted to earlier and later ages)
A whole bunch of loose LEGO pieces (if you can get hold of 3 pounds of LEGO pieces all the better because it would be an accurate representation of an average 3-pound brain)
Paper and pen
Infographic *optional (I put it at the bottom of this post)
#1. Memory Exploration: the Basics of the Brain
Estimated time: 20 minutes
What you need: LEGO pieces
Side note: research shows that opening with a question creates an information loop that we want to close. Kids (and all people) are wired to seek answers to questions. So instead of starting with the objective – today, we are learning about how to make the most of our memory, start with the question What is one power that dolphins, Darth Vader, and you all have in common? It will open the loop and push that curiosity switch on. Then circle back to the answer at the end of the lesson (i.e., we all have the power to make our memory stronger).
Memory is a complex mental process. It involves many parts of the brain. When we learn something new, the memory of it immediately starts declining unless we review it. We have to replay the information in our mind multiple times before it becomes a permanent memory.
Scatter a bunch of loose LEGO pieces on the table.
Our brain consists of about one billion neurons. Here, neurons are represented by LEGO pieces.
Start randomly connecting pieces together into the approximate shape of an octopus.
Each neuron creates about a thousand connections with other neurons. That’s trillions of connections. There are more potential connections between the cells in a single brain than there are atoms in the entire universe! Is your brain amazing or what!?
Invite kids to play and connect LEGO pieces any way they want.
When the brain forms memories or learns a new task, it creates new connections. Connections make the brain stronger and more agile.
#2: Different Types of Memory
Estimated time: 20 minutes
What you need: LEGO set box, paper and pen to jot down names, ideas, and concepts, and arrows to connect them
Semantic memory stores general knowledge, i.e., the names of Star Wars characters, how many pieces are in the Death Star LEGO set, and the biggest Star Wars LEGO kit ever made (It’s the Millenium Falcon by the way!). The more you live, the more you learn about the world, which means that the semantic memory grows stronger every year and improves with age.
Implicit memory refers to the body memory, i.e., how to connect LEGO bricks together, balance the LEGO bridge so it doesn’t collapse, as well as how to type, swim, and ride a bike. Once you learn how to connect LEGO bricks, you don’t have to relearn it, even if you don’t touch LEGO bricks for decades. Implicit knowledge stays stable throughout life.
Episodic memory is the memory of personal or autobiographical events, i.e., what is the last LEGO set you put together, what was the most challenging LEGO set you’ve ever done, as well as what time you meet your friend for a playdate and what cake you had for your last birthday. Episodic memory declines with age. That’s why your mom has trouble remembering what she wanted to buy at the store or where she parked her car.
Memory: short and long
Scientists distinguish between short-term and long-term memory.
Short-term memory, or working memory, or active memory, or immediate memory, is what we call a small amount of information that is the focus of our attention right now, this minute. If I tell you that the Star Wars Tie Fighter LEGO kit has 496 pieces, this information is in your short-term memory for about 30 seconds. At this point, you can (1) forget it, (2) keep actively maintaining this information in your short-term memory (sometimes referred to as rehearsal), or (3) move it to your long-term memory.
Long-term memory, or permanent memory, is all memory that’s not in short-term memory. It’s not located in any one specific area of the brain. Also, it’s limitless (while short-term memory on the other hand is very limited). There are many different strategies to improve long-term memory. Many of the memory methods used today were first discovered more than 2,000 years ago!
#3: Exploring Your Memory Power:
Magic Number 7 plus or minus 2
Estimated time: 10-30 minutes (depending on the number of kids)
What you need: LEGO bricks
Psychology experiments show that short term memory can hold on average 7 items, plus or minus 2.
Let’s do a hands-on experiment.
Pile all the LEGO bricks on the table and ask each kid to pick seven random pieces. Let them look at the pieces for about 30 seconds, take a photo with your smartphone to avoid disagreement later, and move the pieces back to the pile.
Now ask kids to find their seven pieces and compare them with the pic you took.
How did everyone do? My kids had no problem finding their seven pieces. We progressively added more bricks as I encouraged them to come up with a strategy to help them remember.
Don’t forget to take a pic before returning pieces back to the pile.
How many bricks can your kids remember?
When we discussed the strategies my kids came up with to remember their pieces, we learned that all of them used “chunking,” or combining bits of information into chunks that are easier to remember. If you remember your own phone number, you know all about chunking. Instead of remembering a long line of random numbers, you probably separate the number into area code, middle section, and ending. Instead of remembering each individual LEGO piece, my kids grouped their pieces either by color, shape, or by the number of studs, whatever was most relevant to each of them.
The takeaway? Our short-term memory is limited, but we can use strategies to stretch our limits. Different strategies might work better for different people. Encourage your kids to test different ways and find what works best for them.
#4: Memory is a three-step process
Estimated Time: 20 minutes
What you need: paper and pen
Memory is a three-step process:
- Encoding – It starts with getting the information into the brain. Scientists call this encoding. It means picking out what’s relevant among the sea of information that floods our brain every moment (for example, right this minute your sister maybe is scratching herself noisily, the neighbor’s dog is barking outside, the heating system is making a funny gurgling sound, the garbage truck is rattling in the alley, your mom is talking about memory, but you choose to actively pay attention to mom/teacher). Memory begins with active attention. Without attention, you will remember very little.
- Retention – This means storing information for later use. It’s strengthened by interest, association, multi-sensory input, and repetition. The best way to process information for long-term storage is to add meaning. For example, suppose I asked you to remember that Churchill led Britain through WWII. If you make a conscious effort to elaborate on the key details, you would be much more likely to remember them later on. In my case, I would envision Churchill sitting on top of a hill, on a crumbled, war-torn church wall reading a tank manual (church + hill + WWII tank). The goal is to make vivid and meaningful memory pictures and then incorporate new information into a network of knowledge you already have.
- Retrieval – Remembering something, or bringing it to mind out of your long-term memory storage banks, is easier with retrieval cues. Scientists used to think that there was one memory area of the brain; we now know that various types of memory are located in different regions of the brain. For example, emotional memories (memories of experiences that evoke emotional reaction) are related to older brain structures, such as the amygdala (the amygdala is found even in the earliest mammals). Smell, music, and performance cues can all be useful in retrieving relevant data pieces.
Now that we know the basics of memory, let’s turn to specific steps to make the most of memory.
#5: Activity: How to Memorize a Specific Set of Information
Estimated time: as long as you need to memorize something. If your kids are getting tired, stop here and continue the next day.
What you need: Some might find that pen and paper aid in their memory work, otherwise, the only thing you need to do this activity is your brain and willingness to try the following six memory strategies.
Find something you can work on remembering today: a poem, a lesson about Vikings, multiplication tables, or science terms. We are going to help you memorize it with the help of six strategies below.
LEGO terminology speaks to my kids, so I came up with some LEGO words to describe the strategies below. Plus, I love acronyms, and it just so happens that the following set of strategies easily added up to the word “BASKET.” Use B.A.S.K.E.T. to help you remember the strategies.
- Brick it up. How do you build a super awesome LEGO structure? One brick at a time! The same goes for remembering things. Break the information that needs to be remembered into bricks, or parts. For example: even though it seemed so overwhelming to us to think of everything we needed to learn in Japanese for our karate lessons, it turned out that it was only about a hundred words. We divided these words into families of similar items or categories (similar to grouping bricks by color or number of studs): all the numbers, all the katas, all the stances, etc. What can you do to divide the information you decided to learn today into chunks (or bricks)?
- Add interest. If you’re already passionately interested about the things you want to remember, you have an early advantage. It never stops amazing me how quickly my kids learned dinosaur names. Research shows that being passionate about something helps us remember. But if you are not passionately interested in the subject, make it more interesting: use your imagination to add a wacky twist and turn it into a story. Stories are more memorable than bare facts. Mnemonic stories of your own invention create more links between the neurons. Think of an image you associate with each fact (or poem line, or science discussion point), then link these images into a vivid narrative.
- Spaced Repetition Techniques. Just like it sounds, the point is to repeat the material you want to remember at spaced intervals. It makes sense that if you want to remember something for a long time, you better extend the memorization period over a long time too. The more time you spend integrating information, the more intricate the web of connections in your brain, and the easier it is to recall the material. So after your kids have their poem or times table down, keep asking them about it, the next day, the next week, then two weeks on, then a month on, and so on.
- Kaleidoscope. Have you ever made a LEGO Kaleidoscope? A Kaleidoscope is a tube with mirrors and glass that you can turn to create new reflective patterns. It’s super fun! With the kaleidoscope technique, you consider the information you need to memorize from different angles, starting with the most necessary information and adding on details every time you repeat the material. Considering information from different angles creates way more associations than straight on memorization. As you consider it from different sides, you stimulate the growth of new connection and literally rewire your brain – hot cool is that!
- Element is a universal word for LEGO bricks. Do You know the universal memory strategy – a strategy used across all continents by people from many diverse cultures? It’s called say it, write it, do it. What does it mean? Repeat the material multiple times, take notes, and use what you are learning in everyday life. Interestingly, if you are trying to memorize a name, you are three times more likely to memorize it if you say the name three times in the first hour of learning it. Brilliant, isn’t it?
- A Tile is a LEGO piece with a smooth upper surface, sort of like a piece of paper which is good for drawing. This strategy incorporates an organized image (an infographic) of the information as a kind of summary. Long before I heard the word “infographic,” I had a need to organize information into charts with little drawings, text bubbles, pictures, and boxes. It was an easy to understand overview of the information that cemented it in my mind. It works for everyone, no matter if you call yourself a visual learner or not. Check out our infographic below. Does it help you make sense of today’s lesson?
That’s it! The five-part lesson to break up the concept of memory and how it works in digestible bites, but sprinkle the useful facts below throughout the lesson (or even throughout your day) to make this memory lesson even more functional and memorable.
Useful Memory Facts
- Each brain is unique. Due to the minute differences in sensory stimuli, nutrients, and many other aspects of our environment, each brain develops differently. Even identical twins have visibly different brains at the moment of their birth. This means that in the whole wide world there is no brain like yours. You are unlike anybody else. Celebrate and appreciate who you are and what you can do.
- Brains can grow and change. Every time you learn something, you change your brain at the cellular level. With each new experience, your brain rewires and reorganizes itself slightly. The amazing thing about our brain is that it can grow. So, learn new things and challenge yourself every day. The only way to train the brain is to use it.
- What you practice grows stronger. The more you use memory, the better it gets. The more we challenge ourselves, the stronger, better, and faster we become. It’s powerful to know that we have a chance every day to do something to make ourselves better than we were yesterday. Value all effort!
- The more you know, the more you will know. The richer the web of existing knowledge, the more you can instantly link new knowledge to something you already know. These associative links are the basis of our learning. Over time, pieces of information become entwined in the network by their association with other impressions and become linked because they are related in some way. So as you develop your brain, your learning speeds up!
- You can always try a different memory tactic. If you have trouble remembering something, try to remember in a different way. Use chunking or mnemonics, take a nap, practice spaced repetition, come up with acronyms (I do this all the time!), scent your memories, and actively engage your mind by combining senses. I like to sing my shopping list when I don’t have time to write things down (crazy? It works.). You could also try the Mozart effect (Google it), positive visualizations, go for a run, eat foods that boost memory, learn Sherlock Holmes’ mind palace technique. There’s an endless supply of methods and one is sure to work for you.
- Attitude Matters. This is usually a surprising point, but it makes sense. An optimistic attitude or positivity improves memory. In this study, people in the positive-feeling group demonstrated an improved working memory capacity. Carol Dweck did research into a mindset and discovered that if you believe you can, you will do it. Even though memory training can be hard and time-consuming, anyone can do it and benefit from the results.
Need more? Check out Memory Games and Activities that we love (coming soon)!
Unlimited Memory (affiliate link)
I SPY Memory Game (affiliate link)