Brock researcher examines children’s memory, seeks participants

Caitlin Mahy works with young children on memory-related tasks. She is seeking participants for her research.

Caitlin Mahy works with young children on memory-related tasks. She is seeking participants for her research.

Many parents of children three to five years old can often relate to the frustration of their kids forgetting seemingly simple and obvious things, from tying their shoelaces to putting items in a designated spot.

It’s tempting to think that our children are doing this on purpose to get attention or to make us angry. But developmental psychologist Caitlin Mahy cautions that young children’s memory abilities are evolving.

“I think it’s important that parents understand that your preschool-aged children are not necessarily disobeying you,” says the assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. “They’re just not able to remember to do things reliably at this age.”

To better understand how memory develops in young children, Mahy has designed several research projects that examine how children think about the future.

One line of research concerns “prospective memory,” that is, remembering to carry out what you had earlier planned to do, such as pick up a bag of milk on your way home from work.

To measure children’s prospective memory, Mahy’s research assistant describes a simple card-sorting task to a child and then gives children a rule to remember for the future such as “remember to put all the red ones in a box behind you.”

After a distraction of several minutes, the child then proceeds with the card-sorting task. “We’re interested in whether children place the red items into the box or whether kids completely forget,” Mahy says.

Another line of research focuses on “episodic future thinking,” which involves simulating the future in order to make decisions.

To track this, the research assistant tells the child that s/he is going to a certain place, for instance, the desert. “Sometimes we’ll ask them to come up with what they think they should bring, while other times, we’ll give them specific options: Should you bring a pail and shovel, bottle of water, or a plant?” Mahy explains.

A plant would not be useful in the desert, Mahy notes, while a pail and shovel is related to a desert because of the association with sand. But there’s really only one item that would fulfill a future need in the desert: a bottle of water.

“We’re trying to get at whether children are actually anticipating their future needs,” Mahy says. “Are they thinking that they might be thirsty, that the desert might be hot? Can they explain why they would take the water?”

These are some examples of experiments Mahy says will shed light on practical situations. “We’re learning about how children think about the future and remember to carry out their intentions and this helps us learn ways that you can use to make it easier for your child to remember.”

But to make this happen, Mahy needs children aged three to seven years to participate in her research projects.

“They’re all child-friendly activities,” she says. “We frame them as games. They’re looking at pictures, we’re asking them things; we’re asking them to sort cards. It’s fun.”

“They get a little prize in the end, and kids generally have a really good time. Parents always get to watch their children. They get to see their child’s responses and see how their child interacts with an experimenter, which is often really interesting for parents, too.”

Mahy says there are free parking spaces for participants, and activities can be conducted during the week, weeknights, as well as weekends.

To hear about the current research studies, contact: or 905-688-5550 ext. 6089

Read more about Mahy’s research

Visit Mahy’s research lab

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