When Danielle Belleny discovered the flute in middle school, she was hooked. “I absolutely fell in love with learning those études as a high schooler,” say Belleny of the work of classical composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert.
As an adult, the Texas-based wildlife biologist prides herself on her ability to recognize birdsong. And a new study is showing that her childhood expertise in human music might have made her ability to become a bird-watching expert much easier.
A recent study found that the brain skills that expert bird-watchers use—like attention to certain types of features or markings—help them retain similar but new information (like quickly learning about a bird they haven’t seen before). But researchers think that those same skills might help bird-watchers learn brand new things, like being able to distinguish types of dinosaurs or cars.
By using those old skills in new situations, they’re strengthening their memory muscles—and that might hold important keys for memory improvement overall.
What’s this mean for kids? The researchers studied bird-watchers, but having expertise in any area might help children process new information better than those without such expertise. Here’s how to help your child develop a knowledge base on whatever they’re passionate about—and how that can lead to greater memory skills.
The science behind the expertise
Erik Wing, a postdoctoral researcher at Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute, and his colleagues found that seasoned bird-watchers were better able to differentiate new birds they were seeing based on their experience in classifying birds they already had expertise in. Amateur bird-watchers, however, often identified birds based only on color and size—and therefore couldn’t identify species as quickly.
That makes sense—but the researchers suspect that the experts’ bird-watching experience might help them learn other things more efficiently because they’re using their existing knowledge. “For instance, they might remember a person’s name by [consciously or unconsciously] associating it with a bird,” Wing says.
That might explain why Belleny’s expertise in reading music helped her notice small details when identifying birds in the wild. Belleny’s brain connects the dots between the sounds she’s hearing and her musical experiences, helping her differentiate between the subtleties of a chickadee or a cardinal—without her ever thinking “I should apply my musical expertise here.”
Similarly, Wing says that when a child learns to sort through information using certain patterns—whether it’s feathers in birds or chords in rock music—their brain might use that style of learning when trying to interpret something new. And that means that helping kids become better learners might be as simple as encouraging their expertise in an area that they’re already passionate about.
How to encourage your child’s expertise
Whether its dinosaurs, movie trivia, or bird-watching, parents can play a role in helping their children develop and pursue expertise. Here's how Wing suggests parents can help their kids develop their passion and become experts.
Listen to their interests. When kids are excited about something, they talk about it! Parents who actively listen to information shared over and over again are helping kids solidify the information in their minds. Asking questions that allow kids to explain more about the subject solidifies the information in their brains.
Encourage deeper dives. Have a child who seems interested in birds? Encourage them to explore trees, nests, predators—anything that’s slightly related to their area of interest. Wing says those extended learning opportunities will support their understanding of the core subject. “If you get interested in one thing, it often will lead down a chain of things,” he says. “It becomes almost an entry point for other kinds of interests.”
Keep learning active. Kids amazed at a hawk’s wingspan? Suggest they take a photo and draw a picture. Are they telling you over and over how the bird catches prey? Have them write it down. Do they think it’s funny that its whistle-y call doesn’t match its apex predator status? Have them play the sound on the piano. Wing says recording and sharing is self-generated mental feedback. It’s why citizen science projects or apps that encourage species identification work so well at building expertise.
Memory-enhancing activities for kids
Retention activities will help children develop their expertise further, but the strategies their brains adapt can be applied to anything they’re learning in the future. These hacks focus on bird-watching, but try them with whatever topic your child is passionate about.
Compare and contrast. When a child compares and contrasts (“describe the difference between a cardinal and a robin”), neuroscientist Judy Willis says they’re practicing inference learning—a process that identifies similarities and differences in subjects and strengthens the child’s understanding of both items.
Relate new information to old. When Belleny is learning a new birdsong, she thinks of them like the musical scales she learned while playing the flute. Visualizing the calls on a musical staff helps her tie new information to older understandings. Point out similarities to something your child is already familiar with (“Which superhero behaves like which bird?”), and you can help them do the same.
Encourage multisensory learning. Seeing a bird delivers some information. Hearing the bird layers on more; mimicking its movements, more still. Willis says that when kids build “drawers in their brain,” they can store different types of information on one subject in more places, which they can mentally check when they learn something new. By engaging different senses, they’re reinforcing their base knowledge, allowing for better learning.
Paint a mental picture. Kids who are visual learners might find memorizing a list of facts (say, remembering all the different names of birds) challenging. Wing suggests encouraging kids to create mental images instead, then link that image with the words they’re trying to remember. (Maybe they think of the Toronto Blue Jays team logo when they see the bird.) “Mental imagery is a powerful kind of technique for learning new information,” Wing says.
Use physical cues. When Belleny is trying to remember the difference between a crow and a raven, she uses her hands. “I remember how crows and ravens are different because crows’ tails are square-shaped. So, if I make a C with my hands, it's kind of a square shape, and C is for crow,” she explains. “Eventually, it sticks in my brain.” Wing says those physical cues allow a child’s brain to test itself in an active way rather than trying to passively absorb the same information. (It’s the same reason why flashcards—handheld or digital—work great, too!)
Make it personal. Belleny says that when her mom hears a summer tanager, she says that it sounds like it’s saying “Hi, my name is Charlie Wilson!” The funny connection between the bird’s behavior and one of her favorite singers makes it easy for her mom to recognize the bird in the wild. Encourage your kids to make similar personal connections between the things they want to remember and the things they already know. Does a bird’s bright orange color remind them of a Halloween pumpkin? Does the name of a tree remind them of a friend or relative—and then can they connect what the tree looks like to that friend or relative? Tying the new encounter to a personal memory will make it easier to remember—and elicit smiles and giggles when they do.