March 17, 2022 / News & Blog

When to Begin? Early Memories Build the Foundation for Environmental Learning

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Charlie Trautmann, PhD, Cornell University

Many children’s museums are thinking about whether to introduce the difficult but increasingly important topic of climate science into their programs. They are looking for guidance not only on where to start, but does it make sense for their primary audience of very young visitors. Will preschoolers even remember anything about this complex and sometimes scary topic?

Whether the purpose of a visit to a children’s museum is education, relationship-building, entertainment, or some other goal, the visit often involves making memories. When museum professionals understand the basic elements of how human memory works, they can design for the types of memories they want children and families to have when developing experiences for their audiences.


Before we apply the science of memory to museums, it is helpful to understand the time element of memory. Psychologists use three timeframes when discussing memory: sensory, short term, and long term.

Sensory memory is ultra-short, ranging from a few milliseconds to seconds. Our five senses provide information continuously, and most of it cannot be processed fully or stored (Sperling 1963; Orey 2021a). The image of a giant robotic dinosaur, the sound of the spark from a Van de Graaff generator, or the voice of the staff member who asked us not to run are all sensory memories. Some sensory information does survive and moves to a different part of the brain, becoming retained in short-term memory.

Short-term memory, also called “active” or “working” memory, lasts for only 20-45 seconds (Miller 1956). We have a relatively small capacity to keep information in working memory, with a limit of five to nine items, and so after sensing something, we need to do something with the information, or it will be lost (Miller 1956).

Some short-term memories become preserved, or “consolidated,” into long-term memories (Dudai et al. 2015). Long-term memories can last a lifetime. However, since short- and long-term memories occur in different parts of the brain, a transfer of information is required. In many cases, consolidation takes place during sleep. Key Point #1: Getting adequate sleep promotes improved memory (Ruch et al. 2012).


To describe five common types of long-term memory, psychologists usually divide them into two groups: conscious and unconscious, as shown below in Figure 1 on preceding page (adapted from Saylor Academy 2012).

Conscious Memory: Conscious memory involves consciously recalling information, such as what that happened a minute ago, or last year, or what two plus two equals (Cherry 2020). Within this broad category, episodic memory is recalling specific personal events, such as the time, place, and description of something that happened to us. Can you remember your first kiss or the senior high-school prom? These are episodic memories. In contrast, a semantic memory is a piece of general knowledge that has no specific time or place associated with it, such as “dogs have four legs” or “grass is green.”

The two types of conscious memory interact: semantic knowledge often starts as a sensory experience and becomes an episodic memory for a period of time. The child who releases a blown-up balloon taped to a straw on a string experiences the phenomenon of jet propulsion, which might stick in her mind as an episodic memory for that day. Eventually the time and place will become lost to her, and the concept of Newton’s Third Law—that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”—will just become part of her general (semantic) knowledge about the way the world works.

On the other hand, episodic memory relies on our framework of semantic knowledge: the more we know about a subject, the more likely we are to be interested in further learning about it, paying attention to new sensory information that comes to us, and remembering it. The young boy who can watch birds at a window feeder during breakfast is much more likely to engage with an exhibit about the migration of birds at the museum. Key Point #2: Episodic memory and semantic memory can support each other.

Another important fact is that most humans have few episodic memories before the age of four or five. This universal phenomenon, called “infantile amnesia,” means that although children hungrily learn from the time of birth, young children are unlikely to reward their caregivers or museum educators with descriptions of their learning experiences.

Unconscious memory: In contrast to conscious memories, unconscious memories, also called “implicit” or “automatic” memories, are those that we don’t think about on a conscious level (Squire and Dede 2015). These kinds of memories are also important, because they influence our actions and behavior. Three primary types of implicit memories are of particular interest to museums.

Procedural memory refers to motor and cognitive skills that allow us to walk, talk, ride a bike, or type without consciously thinking. Children’s museums provide many opportunities, particularly for children with the fewest opportunities, to develop their procedural memory. In designed spaces, early learners can develop and practice gross motor skills, fine motor skills, observational skills, and sensory perception, often in ways they can’t at home. Although some would consider such activities frivolous, children at play are often testing their theories about the way the world works and, in so doing, are developing the foundations of scientific thinking (Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl 1999). Key Point #3: It is important that we emphasize the concept of learning through play to our stakeholders, and particularly to funders, who sometimes balk at the idea of supporting “play” with their funding.

Priming refers to how recalling information from one domain can trigger memories in another domain. In other words, by strategically activating knowledge in one area, we can use that activated knowledge to elicit knowledge in another area. Staff and volunteers can use priming questions with museum visitors, activating their prior knowledge—perhaps in an unrelated field—as a way of engaging them with a topic (Tulving and Schacter 1990).

Classical conditioning, the third kind of unconscious memory was discovered by Pavlov, who found that one stimulus can become associated, through repetition, with an unrelated stimulus that has a specific response (Cherry 2019). In his famous experiment, Pavlov rang a bell when feeding dogs, and this feeding caused them to salivate. Eventually the dogs would salivate whenever he rang the bell, even if no food were present. Marketers employ classical conditioning when they associate a logo or audio jingle with a pleasurable experience; the McDonald’s jingle can conjure up images, thoughts, and even smells of burgers and fries on the radio. Museums seeking to evoke positive thoughts and increased visitation can use their sounds, logos, and other images in much the same way.


Now that we have an understanding of the common types of memory, let’s apply it to a current topic of interest to many children’s museums: climate change. How can we prepare our children for the future without: 1) boring them with semantic knowledge about the climate they will largely forget, 2) traumatizing them with episodic memories of climate change in a way that scares them and prevents them from connecting with the topic, or 3) conditioning them, through repetition, to simply ignore or shut down on the topic of climate change?

One approach is first for children’s museums to capitalize on their ability to inspire relationships among people, objects, places, and concepts. As poignantly expressed by Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught” (Valenti and Tavana 2005).

Museums are well-positioned to inspire a child’s love for the natural environment by creating positive semantic memories about animals, places, water, and other elements of the environment that will last a lifetime. These positive memories about the environment can form a foundation to support later learning about the environment and its key systems, in a way that is age-appropriate and in line with a child’s cognitive learning abilities.

Second, through their programs and exhibits, children’s museums can encourage children to improve their critical thinking skills, which are important in countering much of the disinformation about climate change. Museums can help children become more comfortable in asking good questions, and simultaneously building children’s confidence to seek help from adults in answering their own questions. Museums can advance these goals by helping adults understand how children learn and form memories so that they can support childhood learning most effectively.


The science of climate change is complex. Many children’s museums struggle with the decision to include it at all for their primarily very young audiences. What engaging activities related to climate change could be presented in a playful way that a four-year-old would even remember? But as many other authors in this issue have stated, the early years are the optimal time for laying a learning foundation of critical thinking skills and building a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world, which in time, can blossom into a conservation mindset. By understanding how memory works, children’s museums can enhance learning and other positive impacts for the children and families they serve. Positive episodic memories and semantic memories can enhance each other, and museum educators can use this understanding to create the most effective programs and exhibits.


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Charlie Trautmann is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. He is director emeritus of the Sciencenter of Ithaca, New York, and a past board member of the Association of Children’s Museums and the Association of Science and Technology Centers. At Cornell, he teaches Environmental Psychology and directs the Environment and Community Relations (EnCoRe) Lab. He can be reached at