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Remembering What's Important

At 3, Katie Puschel knew the names of each of her 30 stuffed animals, but she couldn't recall that of a neighbor she'd met several times. "I'm amazed by what she can remember  -- and what she forgets," says her mom, Katherine Hutt Puschel, of Vienna, VA.

Katie's not alone. Preschoolers tend to retain only what's interesting to them, according to Susan Engel, Ph.D., author of Context Is Everything: The Nature of Memory.

For safety's sake, it's important that your child know certain essential facts, such as her parents' names, her phone number (with area code), and her address. To help these vital stats stick:

  • Become a rhymin' Simon. Make a poem or song out of the information. Research shows that kids and adults remember things more easily this way. Hutt Puschel set her phone number to the tune of a radio jingle, and after several days of practice, Katie had it memorized.

  • Create a game. Instead of saying, "Now you're going to practice learning our phone number," try, "Let's play the phone-number game. I tell you our phone number, and you repeat it back."

  • Give other cues. Show your child the address on your house, the mailbox, or an envelope instead of just telling it to her (assuming she knows her numbers and has a rudimentary ability to read). Or write down your name and phone number in big letters and let her trace the characters with her fingers or a marker. The more senses your child uses, the more likely the information will stay with her, says Brian D. Cox, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, NY.

  • Drill it through. Once you've taught your child her address or phone number, have her repeat it at least a few times a week. Unless kids continue to practice what they've learned, they're likely to forget it.

  • Prepare her. As a back-up measure, keep your child's name, address, and phone number, along with your name, clearly marked inside her backpack or on the label of her jacket. Let her know where this information is, so if she ever does become separated from you, she can show it to a police officer. "As much as you try to help your child remember things, don't expect perfection," says Cox. "The truth is, parents are a preschooler's best memory device."