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Children demonstrate the ability to acquire, store, recall, and apply past experiences.

Early experiences help children understand basic concepts and categories, thereby helping them make sense of the world around them.1 Children begin to form memories through everyday interactions with their caregivers and their environment.

Prior to the development of object permanence, children become familiar with people, objects, and actions. For example, children turn their head toward a familiar voice and begin to anticipate certain patterns within their routines, such as holding a bottle, or opening their mouth when they see a spoon. Once children acquire object permanence, they have the capacity to remember that people and objects still exist even when they are out of sight. Object permanence allows children to realize that their caregivers have left the room, and provides them the ability to find hidden objects.

Children progress from anticipating the function of objects, for example, shaking a rattle with the expectation it will produce sound, to anticipating routines throughout the day. Children may demonstrate this by walking over to their chair after hearing a caregiver say, “Snack time.” Children also demonstrate awareness of people or objects that are not present. Children may ask for their parents or their siblings throughout the day while in the care of others.

Around 24 months of age, children have the capacity to remember a certain sequence of events. For example, children who attend a childcare center may remember that dimming the lights, lying in their cot, and listening to a story, in that particular order, are what constitute naptime. Near 36 months of age, children can demonstrate more complex examples of sequencing as they communicate with others or while engaged in pretend play. As children continue to develop, their ability to retain long-term memories also improves.

Sharing Memories

When children near 36 months of age, they begin to recall experiences that are emotionally significant. For example, children can recall a birthday party or a special day with their family, or an experience that was frightening or traumatic. Children recall the sequence of these events and can communicate these experiences to others. Caregivers can encourage children to share these memories by asking them open-ended questions, therefore prompting them to expand on what they are saying, or having them draw out their experiences. Not only does this support children’s memory development and language development, it also supports their emotional regulation and expression. In cases where children are sharing fears and negative experiences, the same sensitive approach is encouraged. Caregivers demonstrate empathy and understanding by validating the emotions that children express when recalling a fearful or traumatic event and should always follow the child’s lead during these conversations.

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to form memories from their experiences and will begin to anticipate certain patterns for occurrences.

Indicators for children include:

  • Turns toward familiar voices, sounds, and/or objects
  • Anticipates familiar events, e.g., reaches for bottle and brings to mouth
  • Finds an object that it is partially hidden
  • Remembers that objects and people still exist even when they are no longer physically present, e.g., looks around for parent when parent leaves the room

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide interesting and age-appropriate toys and objects for exploration
  • Engage and interact with the child frequently during the day
  • Hide toys under blankets and wait for the child to respond
  • Play games such as peek-a-boo, or play with a jack-in-the-box

7 months to 18 months

Children remember familiar people, routines, actions, places, and objects.

Indicators for children include:

  • Finds hidden objects, e.g., lifts a blanket to uncover a toy after seeing the caregiver hide it
  • Shows awareness of non-present, familiar adults, e.g., while in childcare, asks for mom and dad throughout the day
  • Searches for objects in their usual location, e.g., finds their favorite book on the bookshelf
  • Anticipates what event comes next in his or her daily routine, e.g., sits down for a morning snack after a music activity

Strategies for interaction

  • Play with the child using various objects which they can explore
  • Set routines; create picture cards with the daily routine so the child can begin to understand what his or her day will consist of
  • Play simple games that include hiding a toy in a nearby location
  • Respond to the child in a sensitive manner when he or she asks for someone who is not currently there, e.g., “I know you miss your Mommy; she will be back soon to pick you up.”

16 months to 24 months

Children recognize and anticipate the series of steps in familiar activities.

Indicators for children include:

  • Remembers several steps in familiar routines and carries out these routines with little or no prompting
  • Recalls an event in the past, e.g., a special visitor, or a friend’s birthday party
  • Searches for objects in different places

Strategies for interaction

  • Engage in conversations with the child pertaining to past experiences; ask questions
  • Notify the child when there will be a change in the daily routine
  • Ask the child what he or she thinks may happen next when reading a familiar story

21 months to 36 months

Children anticipate the steps in experiences and activities and understand the sequence of events. They may also remember and recall past events and translate knowledge of past experiences to new experiences.

Indicators for children include:

  • Shares with adult what happened in school that day
  • Carries out routines independently without being reminded what comes next in the daily routine
  • Uses play to communicate about previous events or experiences, including the sequence of events that took place, e.g., a friend’s birthday party
  • Translates past knowledge to new experiences, e.g., recalls a trip to the dentist, and narrates and acts out each step of the experience on a peer during play

Strategies for interaction

  • Listen to the child’s stories; ask open-ended questions
  • Model sequencing during play, e.g., “First we will put on these hats, then we will go to the tea party, we will drink tea, and finally we will go back home”
  • Read a story with the child; ask the child if he or she can remember what happened at a certain part
  • Encourage the child to create a story around a picture he or she has drawn


  1. Stern, Daniel (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
Reviewed: 2012