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Case Study: Children’s long term visual memories of favorite animals

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Research Features

  • Cognitive Behavior-Element | Ability to retrieve complex information from multiple sources in long-term memory and to organize the information in a new way.
  • Neuroscience Component | Visual images are stored in different areas of the brain. Working memory is required for memory search and drawing task.
  • Experimental Modification | The protocol for Case Study requests children to recall seven (7) features about their favorite animal. Generic prompts are given to the entire class to aid all children’s searches of their longterm memories for visual images of the animal they select for their drawing.

Sample | Twelve elementary school classrooms, including 12 teachers and 250 students, participated in this experimental lesson.

Method | The experimental lesson involved the following steps.

  • Reading the protocol
  • Distributing paper and a colored pen set to each student
  • Maintaining quiet during drawing time
  • Circulating among children as they finished their drawings
  • Asking if children wished to describe for the visiting teacher/researcher (i.e., the author) any information they didn’t show in their animal pictures
  • Recording each student’s comments, name, and age on the back of each picture

The protocol below was intended to enable children to form mental visual images of the animals they would choose to draw. To this end, the protocol was designed to provide generic prompts that would stimulate each student to think about and recall the specific features of the animal each child was likely to choose and portray in a picture. The same protocol was given in all classes, and children were treated identically in terms of the generic prompts they received, regardless of the differences in the ages of the students. Since the author was exploring the use of generic prompts with all children before they chose the animal they wanted to draw, children were asked to close their eyes throughout the instructions, while they thought about “their animal.” One last point, the drawing task was not related to any classroom instruction about animals.

Protocol | Today you will explore how many pictures your brain stores in your mind. I will ask each of you to close your eyes while you think about an animal that you know a lot about, maybe from books or television or movies. Maybe it is an animal you have or once had as a pet. Try to picture the animal in your mind. (Pause.) Once you have chosen your animal, still keep your eyes closed while I ask you to think about special parts of the animal, and what the animal is doing. Afterward, I will give you paper and a set of colored pens to show what you remember about the animal you choose. Now listen to what I say.

“Again, close your eyes and think of an animal that you can easily imagine with your eyes closed. (Pause.) Think about the animal you want to draw. Think about its size and shape. How big is it? (Pause.) Still keeping your eyes closed, what color is the animal? Is it one color or more than one color? (Pause.) Can you see its texture? How would it feel to touch? (Pause.) What is the animal’s environment? Where does it live? (Pause) Can you picture what the animal eats? (Pause.) Are there plants or other animals that live nearby? (Pause.) Still keeping your eyes closed, how does the animal look when it is resting? (Pause.) Once you can picture your animal in your mind, raise your hand and I will bring paper and a set of colored pens to you to draw the picture in your mind.”

Discussion of Result | Children’s drawings varied in complexity and amount of detail. Talking with children after they completed their drawings gave a more complete profile of children’s recalled visual memories of the animals they chose to draw. Older children, ages nine to twelve years, were expected to recall and represent more complex visual information in their pictures, but the complexity of children’s recalled visual images appeared unrelated to their age. The Shark sketched by a five-year-old boy illustrates the surprising level of detail in many young children’s drawings. Note all of the plants and animals in the shark’s environment and the marginal notes of the boy’s explanation of what each animal ate. A second drawing, The Elephant was created by a seven-year-old girl, shows a remarkable similarity between the current child’s drawing and the 20,000-year-old cave drawing of a reindeer. Both The Elephant and The Reindeer show animals walking in streams filled with fish around their legs.

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