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New insights into Māori early memory advantage

Friday 8 February 2008

New insights into Māori early memory advantage

New clues to why Māori adults tend to have the earliest childhood memories of any culture studied so far are being revealed by University of Otago research.

The study by Department of Psychology researchers found that Māori mothers appear to talk with their children in richer ways about significant events involving them, such as their birth.

Study co-author Associate Professor Elaine Reese says discussing past events in richer detail during early childhood has previously been linked to children more effectively storing their early memories.

“This new study provides the first evidence that Māori children experience a richer narrative environment than New Zealand European children and that these rich stories transfer to children’s storytelling skill,” Associate Professor Reese says.

Associate Professor Reese, along with Otago colleague Professor Harlene Hayne and Queensland University of Technology researcher Shelley MacDonald, have just published the findings in the US journal Child Development.

Previous Otago research from 2000 had found that, on average, young Māori adults’ earliest memories reached back to 2½ years of age, while New Zealand Europeans’ memories went back to 3½ years.

The latest study assessed the narrative environment for 15 Māori and 17 European New Zealand children, aged 3-8 years. The researchers recorded mothers telling their child their birth story as well as stories of everyday past events, such as going to a museum.

“We focused on birth stories because they involve a highly significant shared event of equal interest to both parties. These stories are a good indicator of how mothers tend to talk with their children about significant events in their lives.

“In no way are we suggesting that the birth stories will become the earliest memory – instead, these stories were used as a benchmark,” Associate Professor Reese says.

After categorising conversations for the level and type of detail mothers provided, they found that Māori mothers provided more references to time and emotions in their birth stories than European mothers, she says.

“We found that the richness of the style in which mothers related the birth stories strongly predicted how good children were at talking about more recent past events they had experienced.”

A new study with 75 Māori families will be started this year which will measure narratives from whanau members and the children’s literacy and numeracy as they move into formal schooling.

It will form part of PhD candidate Tia Neha’s studies and is funded by a Te Tipu Putaiao fellowship from the Foundation for Research, Science, and Technology.

The current research was funded by grants to Professor Hayne from the Foundation and the Marsden Fund.


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