How to talk to my preschooler to maximize learning opportunities (A Nurture-Science post)

In the fall of 2018 I decided to try something new with my blogging and I volunteered to start writing for a new blog collaborative project called Nurture-Science. Unlike all other posts you see here on my WP site, the posts I’m writing for NS are peer reviewed by the editorial team at NS. As you can see if you click over to the site, the project aims are near-and-dear to my heart in that the site organizers, like me, aim to make useful psychological scientific information freely accessible to all-comers. While the site is still under construction, I thought I’d share my first few contributions here on my own site, too. My regular readers will notice some differences between my regular posts and my Nurture-Science posts, namely my NS posts are shorter :), and include traditional scientific references. I expect all else will read in a familiar tone. I hope you enjoy these and that you’ll keep your eye on Nurture-Science too, as the site continues to fill in with useful information carefully crafted for everyday readers looking for solid advice.


The other day I was at home in the afternoon with half an ear to my 11-year-old daughter’s violin practice while finishing up some work of my own. She started playing a new piece I hadn’t heard her practice before (a fiddle tune), and I paused to listen more closely. The tune instantly took me back to the days not-so-long gone, when my daughter and I loved listening to folk music recordings produced for young children. The actual song the fiddle tune reminded me of was just on the tip-of-my tongue, and since I was mostly done with my own work, I decided to join my daughter and see if she could help jog my memory.


When I came in to the room where she was practicing and brought up what I was thinking about, my daughter happily put down her instrument to join me in a trip through “memory lane” and we had a ton of fun reminiscing about her preschool years. Despite where the reminiscence conversation took us and just how much we did remember of those years and the music we listened to then, we couldn’t quite pin-point a specific song that neatly aligned with her current fiddle tune. In fact, we both agreed that the fiddle tune must have just included similar themes to what we used to listen to– it all comes from the same genre after all–and given what I know about memory processing, I expect that was the right answer.

Memory is a remarkable human capacity in that it creates for us moments of “mental time travel” like what I described above. It’s not only the ability to project ourselves back in time, but it allows us to project ourselves into the future, too (e.g., Tulving, 1993). And that’s not all — memory is not a unitary skill and it has many parts and processes, each with a different developmental timeline (e.g., Bauer, 2015). In the present case, the kind of memory I am discussing is often called episodic memory (Tulving, 1994). When episodic remembering carries with it a strong sense of reliving and personal meaning, it can also be considered autobiographical memory. What episodic and autobiographical memory have in common is the following: (i) a sense of reliving the past; (ii) a sense of temporal order within the memory; (iii) a sense of narrative structure to the details of the memory; (iv) prominent sensory experience, namely visual-spatial imagery in your mind’s eye; and (v) a sense of the original emotion felt at the time of experience (e.g., Rubin, 2005; Conway, 2009). Whereas episodic memory is the ability to mentally relive any old experience, autobiographical memory is when we use our episodic abilities to define or inform others of “ourselves” via personal story telling. Indeed, Bauer (2015) notes that autobiographical memory comes from the gradual process of collating essential elements from a variety of memories that reflect the prototypical aspects of ourselves – that is, memories of what we are usually like. Said another way, autobiographical memory is the basis of identity.

While some aspects of memory development are tied to brain development, other aspects of memory development are learned through social interactions with parents, siblings, and caregivers. For this and other reasons, episodic and autobiographical memory are considered late-developing skills with progressive improvements and fine-tunings occurring throughout childhood and into adolescence (e.g., see Bauer, 2015 and Nelson & Fivush, 2004 for detailed considerations of how to best describe the developmental progression). Just how the process occurs is, at present, not fully understood (Bauer, 2015; Kleinknecht & Beike, 2004; Nelson & Fivush, 2004). However, researchers in this area agree that young children’s memory abilities are influenced by the way their parents interact with them (Nelson & Fivush, 2004) in conversations about past experiences, both shared and unshared.

Salmon and Reese (2016) state that “one of the most effective ways that parents can promote their young children’s cognitive and emotional development is to talk with them (p 233).” It’s been established in the research literature that parents adopt a style of reminiscence with their children and use that style consistently. Though probably more continuous than dichotomous, the two ends of the continuum in parent-reminiscence style are what researchers often examine: on one end parents may be elaborative in conversation and on the other, parents may be repetitive.

An elaborative style is when a parent both asks and answers their own queries (e.g., “Remember that song we listened to yesterday? The one about … we loved that song didn’t we? Especially the part about … and I loved it when you started to dance! That was so fun.” …), pausing to allow their preschooler to agree, disagree or add-on, but carrying on until a full story is articulated.

In contrast, a repetitive style of reminiscence is a conversation wherein the parent starts with a question, and fishes until the child answers that question (e.g., “Remember that song we listened to yesterday? What was it? … Great, you remember! What did you do, when we listened? …”). When the child answers all their parent’s questions, the conversation ends.

Interestingly, parents who reminisce with an elaborative style are not simply more talkative than parents who reminisce repetitively, it really is just a different pattern of interaction (e.g., see Fivush & Bauer, 2010, for a review of this work).

Left to their own devices in preschool, very young children do have episodic memory abilities and can tell others a smattering of details about lived experience but understandably they do not, as a matter of course, recite detailed narratives (Nelson & Fivush, 2004). When pressed for details, preschoolers can often share quite a bit more, too though. Along these lines, though the repetitive style might seem like “good memory practice,” it turns out that the pattern that predicts positive outcomes later in childhood is the elaborative style of reminiscence (e.g., Salmon & Reese, 2016). That is, in early childhood when young children’s episodic memory skills are still works-in-progress, the elaborative style of engagement gives them a number of boosts. For example, elaborative interactions … .

… provide preschoolers’ with a template for personal storytelling that they can mentally note and use to help organize their memory reports later. The template helps them learn what is and what is not important to attend to in the moment and to then later share (e.g., Nelson & Fivush, 2004)

… reinforce shared experiences, enhancing the memories young children made in the moment and making that particular experience easier for them to recall themselves, later (e.g., Salmon & Reese, 2016; Bauer, 2015)

Elaborative parent-child memory conversations enhance more than children’s memory abilities. Elaborative interactions also … .

… enhance preschoolers’ language development in terms of vocabulary, phonological awareness, and narrative – all pre-requisites for later reading ability, both in terms of reading production and comprehension (e.g., Salmon & Reese, 2016)

… provide preschoolers with opportunities to compare their mental states to the states of others – an important precursor to empathy and perspective taking abilities necessary for good friendships (e.g, Salmon & Reese, 2016)

… give preschoolers a chance to practice controlling their attention (e.g., Salmon & Reese, 2016) – a definite bonus for school, later on

… help preschoolers connect experiences and actions with subsequent emotions, which feeds emotional self-regulation (e.g., Salmon & Reese, 2016) – also a necessary skill for both healthy scholastic and social interactions later in life

Though I mentioned earlier that parents tend to adopt a singular style of reminiscence and use that style consistently, it turns out that parents’ patterns can change and when parents change, children’s abilities improve in kind.  For example, Boland, Haden & Ornstein (2003) created a situational research program wherein the research team brought props and a loose play-plan to families’ homes, and parents and their children were invited to play out the plan (e.g., “going camping”). Some families served as the control group and their play was simply recorded. Other families were in the experimental group, where parents were first trained in how to elaboratively interact with their children during play. The training involved coaching parents to …

… ask Wh- questions about things and activities in the moment

… draw connections between elements of the current experience and the child’s own knowledge and past experiences

… prompt the child to discuss in more detail what s/he was engaged with in the moment

… praise the child’s engagement with the play-props, and to put positive emotion and other words to the behavior and experiences therein

After training, experimental families played out the activity, just as the control families did. Children’s language and memory performance was assessed before the play event, and again after the play event. Children in the experimental group showed significantly better memory for the activity than the children in the control group.

Salmon & Reese (2016) report additional findings showing the benefits of elaborative training too, for example they report that when parents with children in Head-Start preschool programs (i.e., low-income families) were trained to engage in elaborative conversation while book reading, their children showed enhanced narrative ability later. Further, Salmon and Reese also note benefits of elaborative training in clinical settings. They discuss the findings that parents who entered therapy with maladaptive interaction styles who were then trained to use positive elaborative conversation styles, not only changed their style of interaction with their children, but their children experienced benefits too, in the way of enhanced emotion regulation, enhanced emotional vocabulary, and better episodic memory.

As such, the answer to the question, “How [should I] talk to my preschooler to maximize learning opportunities” is a straightforward one: talk with your child elaboratively and in detail! Narrate your shared experiences as they happen and invite your child to comment, too, but don’t be deterred if your preschooler doesn’t add much to your ongoing story. Rather, keep up the talking while you make eye contact and non-verbal connections with your child. That is, invite your child to respond, and if they do, great! But if they don’t, answer for them. Research examining parent-child interactions in museum visits and park-walks shows that when asked about the experience after the fact, preschoolers only shared with researchers details of the event that they discussed in the moment with their parent (Tessler & Nelson, 1994). Your efforts at narration of shared experiences in the moment and after the fact will pay out dividends later on for you and for your child. It will help your child remember those important family vacations and the little spontaneous moments that surprise and delight you, equally as well. By keeping up the steady stream of dialogue, not only will your child benefit in all the ways discussed above, but such ongoing conversations help forge strong emotional bonds between you and your child too. Reminiscence conversations help us cherish and hold in our hearts the good times, and in hindsight come to terms with the not-so-good as well. What a wonderful thing it is, memory! And a relatively easy one to maintain, when you have the right words to guide you.



Bauer, P. J. (2015). A complementary processes account of the development of childhood amnesia and a personal past. Psychological Review, 122, 204-231.

Boland, A. M., Haden, C. A., & Ornstein, P.A (2003). Boosting children’s memory by training mothers in the use of elaborative conversational style as an event unfolds. Journal of Cognition and Development, 4, 39 – 65.

Conway, M. A. (2009). Episodic memories. Neuropsychologia, 47, 2305 – 2313. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.02.003

Fivush, R., & Bauer, P. J. (2010). The emergence of recollection: How we learn to recall ourselves in the past. In J. H. Mace (ed): The act of remembering: Toward an Understanding of How we Recall the Past, 259-283.

Kleinknecht, E. & Beike, D. R. (2004). How knowing and doing inform an autobiography: Relations among preschoolers’ theory of mind, narrative, and event memory skills. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18, 745 – 764. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1030

Nelson, K. & Fivush, R. (2004). The emergence of autobiographical memory: A social cultural developmental theory. Psychological Review, 111, 486 – 511. DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.111.2.486

Rubin, D. C. (2005). A basic-systems approach to autobiographical memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 79 – 83. DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00339.x

Salmon, K. & Reese, E. (2016) The benefits of reminiscing with young children. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 233 – 238. DOI: 10.1177/0963721416655100

Tessler, M. & Nelson, K. (1994). Making memories: The influence of join encoding on later recall by young children. Consciousness and Cognition, 3, 307 – 326.

Tulving, E. (1993). What is episodic memory? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2, 67 – 70.





























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