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Article of the month from Dr. Thanujeni Pathman (February 2022 selection)

Article of the month from Dr. Thanujeni Pathman (February 2022 selection)

Memory at Play: Examining Relations Between Episodic and Semantic Memory in a Children’s Museum

What do you need to know?

Children’s semantic memory (knowledge about the world) influenced the accuracy of children’s memory for past events. Researchers found age-related improvements in children’s semantic knowledge and that children’s language abilities (knowledge about the meaning of words) predicted accuracy of memory for past events.

What is this research about?

Episodic memory involves memory for events that have occurred at a particular time and place. Semantic memory includes the retrieval of facts, concepts, and general knowledge. These two memory systems are thought to be parallel yet partially overlapping. Episodic and semantic memory systems both undergo developmental changes throughout childhood. However, relatively little is known about the relation between these memory systems during childhood, especially early to middle childhood.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers examined the episodic and semantic memory systems, and their relation, through the lens of development. Specifically, the researchers sought to explore this relation by examining how a specific aspect of semantic memory, semantic knowledge about spatial locations, may influence children’s episodic memory for events and their location.

A total of 87 children aged 5-7 years old engaged in an episodic memory task in a children’s museum designed as a town in order to harness a naturalistic setting rich in contextual details. This use of a naturalistic setting is less common (compared to lab-based studies) within memory research. Children participated in events which were semantically congruent or incongruent with the spatial locations (e.g., sorting mail at a post office vs. grocery store), and their memory for the events and their spatial locations were later tested. A novel semantic interview task was also conducted to assess the children’s semantic knowledge about real-world target locations, and the developmental trajectory of this knowledge. They then examined how performance on the episodic memory task and the semantic interview task were related. A language-based task was also included to parallel how prior research has examined the relation between episodic and semantic memory systems in children.

What did the researchers find?

Experimentally, children’s spatial semantic memory was found to influence spatial episodic memory overall. Specifically, accuracy for memory for locations (i.e., spatial episodic memory) was influenced by the experimental manipulation such that children more accurately remembered the spatial location for the event when there was a semantic match between the location and the event, relative to when there was no match (i.e., incongruent condition). When children made errors in the incongruent condition, younger children were more likely to incorrectly choose the location that matched their semantic knowledge. Novel semantic interviewing revealed age-related improvements in children’s semantic knowledge of locations across early middle childhood. Additional analyses were conducted to better understand factors that influence or drive children’s episodic memory development. Age and the language-based assessment of semantic knowledge were found to predict an aspect of episodic memory.

How can you use this research?

This research was novel in numerous ways. Few studies to date having explored the relation between episodic and semantic memory in early middle childhood amidst a typically developing sample. The results highlighted the utility of conducting research on episodic and semantic memory in a naturalistic setting.Studies conducted in naturalistic settings have the benefit of bringing research into the active, social context in which learning organically occurs. This study thus supported the perspective that naturalistic settings may allow for greater memory performance in children. This study also contributed a novel method of examining children’s semantic memory via a narrative interview task designed to assess what children know about locations. This contribution is important as semantic memory has most often been assessed with language-based tasks and little is known about children’s knowledge of space.

About the researchers

Sarah J. Sipe, Graduate Research Assistant at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Thanujeni Pathman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at York University.


Sipe, S. J., & Pathman, T. (2021). Memory at Play: Examining Relations Between Episodic and Semantic Memory in a Children's Museum. Child Development92(3), e270–e284.