Have you ever heard the phrase, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” Coincidentally, that same sentiment is true of people too. We learn important things and stick with them forever. There are very few things in life more important than the ability to remember things. Whether it is a shopping list, the tasks you have at work, or eight emails you need to respond to, working memory is a critical part of existing as a human being.
Many people turn to lists to keep them organized, but even better is training your working memory. As adults, it can be hard. New tricks are more complicated as your brain loses flexibility with age. But as a child, your brain is highly elastic. Between the ages of 3 and 7, your neural pathways are at their highest rate of development. That is why the habits you make growing up stick with you. So how can you optimize working memory in children, and does it work on adults too?
1. Understanding executive function
Working memory is a part of a brain-based skill set known as “executive function.” The functions are memory, impulse control, and creative thinking, which are all connected by the principal of reflection. When you are able to pull yourself out of the present moment and think about the future, the past, or the perspective of other people, you can consider yourself a master of executive function. Still, many people struggle with this concept. Practicing memory is just the ability to step into the past and remember what your thoughts and priorities looked like then. If you are trying to strengthen your memory, you need to start with the basics. Reflection and executive function training can help you with that.
2. Practicing memory skills by teaching
Children use memory all the time. Understood.org cites two major examples, multi-step directions and math problems, as everyday uses of memory skills. In order to help your child develop their ability to remember things, increase their capacity to learn. Learning is the single best way to increase brain activity, because when the brain is exposed to something it has never known before, it explodes with new activity. Teaching your child new words, activities, and facts is a good first step, and to help their memory, ask them to teach you the concept back. This challenges their mind to remember the nuances of WHY things work the way they do, not just that they do. When you have to explain something, you understand it better than just by learning it.
3. Play games
Yes, even improving memory can be fun. Many games are designed to help children’s working memory. Board games that make you keep track of multiple pieces of information, card games that make you follow patterns and adapt, and any game with rules teaches your brain to keep rules in mind throughout the game in your conscious mind. Even made up games are helpful. The roadtrip favorite, the license plate game has you go through the alphabet on license plates, making you observe and remember what letter you are on and discard invaluable information. As you get older and outgrow basic games, crosswords and sudoku can strengthen your mind and keep your knowledge base wide. The game strategy helps your child sort through important information and develop their memory to remember rules and strategies.
4. Maximize reading
Reading is well-documented as one of the most impactful ways to change your brain. It has innumerable benefits, including improving concentration, vocabulary, stress reduction, and yes, memory. A story relies on the reader’s ability to recall information like character names, plot, and foreshadowing. That whole concept is dependent on the reader remembering to pay attention and notice hints. If you want to improve your memory, the easiest tangible way is by incorporating reading into your routine. Even starting a scheduled 30 minutes per day delivers the proven benefits.
5. Start a simple workout routine
If you already have a workout routine, congrats! You are working on your physical and mental fitness. If not, I hate to be the one to break the news, but it is time. Even just going for a short walk every day counts as fitness. Prioritizing your wellbeing starts with fitness, and improving your memory is connected to working out too. Every time you get moderately active, your blood flow increases, which brings more oxygen to the brain. Exercising is reported to create more cells in the hippocampus, which is the memory center of the brain. That’s right. Working out literally improves your memory with no cognitive work, on top of countless other brain based benefits.
There are tons of simple ways that you can make your memory work for you. Some of them may already be a part of your routine. Fitness, reading, and playing games are likely things you already put some importance in. But try bringing them to your child. The best way to start a habit is by starting young, and memory is the most malleable in young children. If you have your child read, ask them to teach the story back to you. If they play, make fitness a game. You will never know how much impact those small gestures will have on their memory in the long term, but if it all works, they will most likely be able to remember to thank you.