Children's ability to describe past event develops over time

Armen Hareyan's picture

In the first study to examine how children talk about the time-related features of their experiences - when, how often, in what order events occur - researchers have found intriguing changes as children grow older. The study's findings may have implications for understanding these aspects of cognitive development as well as for questioning child witnesses and victims.

The study was conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the University of Cambridge. It appears in the July/August 2007 issue of the journal Child Development.


The researchers analyzed forensic interviews of 250 4- to 10-year-old children who were alleged victims of sexual abuse, focusing on the kinds of references to time they made when describing these real-life events.

The children made increasing numbers of references to time-related characteristics of experienced events as they grew older, the researchers found. However, witnesses under 10 seldom mentioned specific times or dates, or what happened before reported events or actions. There were dramatic increases to such references at the age of 10.

References to the sequence of events or parts of events were most common, and their increase with age may be related to children's developing capability to elaborate. Children were more likely to mention time spontaneously when asked to recall what happened than when they were asked specific recognition questions. This is pertinent because information retrieved from memory by recall is much more likely to be accurate than information retrieved in response to questions that ask children to select among options offered by the interviewer (such as "Did he