Study shows why younger children remember details but struggle with order of events

image of two girls sitting at a desk looking at a notebook
Parents should avoid intense teaching sessions and enjoy quality time with their children

Children between four and five years old find it more difficult to remember time and the sequence of events than older children, a study by psychology researchers at York University shows. This is expected to be a particularly important finding as more children could be asked to testify about what happened inside their homes during the pandemic.

“Did I see John before or after I went to the park?” “Who came into my room first?” Researchers say children aged eight to 10 years old can answer these types of questions with better accuracy than younger children.

In cases of child maltreatment and abuse, children are often the only witnesses, other than the accused. That is why thousands of children participate in forensic interviews or testify in courts every year.

A photo of Jeni Pathman
Jeni Pathman

“There are reports that COVID-related lockdowns and school closures have resulted in more cases of maltreatment and abuse. So around the world we expect an increase in future court cases, and an increase in the number of children that are interviewed or asked to testify about events that happened inside the home during the pandemic,” says senior author Thanujeni (Jeni) Pathman, assistant professor, Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Health at York University.

“It’s possible there will be even more need to rely on the testimony of child eyewitnesses, so understanding what children can remember and report, including when past events occurred, is important,” said Pathman.

The study looked at how well children remember the order that past events occurred, to better understand why younger children have a more difficult time being accurate compared to older kids or adults. Previous research has found that there are drastic improvements in how well children remember past events across childhood, but the development of temporal memory − memory for ‘when’ − is especially slow to develop.  Researchers wanted to know why this is so.

In the study, 127 children took part in a week-long summer camp in 2018 at the Toronto Zoo where they experienced unique and fun events each day, including visits to particular animal exhibits. Children were in three age groups: four to five-year-olds; six to seven-year-olds; and, eight to 10-year-olds. Researchers tested the children’s memory for the order of events they experienced across the week with questions like, “Which did you do first, visit the polar bear or the giraffe?”

The study found that the two older age groups remembered the order of the zoo events.  Six to seven-year-olds were not as accurate as the eight to 10-year-olds, but both groups were accurate overall. This is in contrast to the youngest children, in the four- to five-year-old group, who were not accurate about order or timing of events – even though they remembered many other details about events from the zoo. In order to determine the precise mental processes that children may be using to help them answer the question, researchers varied the time between the events in the question. For some questions, the two events happened close in time, making it more difficult, and for other events the two events were farther apart, making it less difficult.

“When adults do tasks like these, they show a boost in memory when the two events are farther apart, pinpointing a particular type of process used to explain how adults remember time,” said Pathman. “We found that only the oldest age group showed this boost which means that only they were benefiting from the use of this particular process that adults use.”

Researchers say these results help explain why there are age-related improvements and why memory for time shows continued improvements so late in development.

The final version of this study is published online in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.