“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie
down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters…”
She was 6. Her short, sun-lightened hair curled softly around
her face as she stood beside the gray metal kitchen table with the
wings folded down, reciting the 23rd Psalm to her parents. They
smiled and nodded. “You’re so quick,” her dad said as she crawled
up on his lap. This was fun, she thought and started in again
repeating those long sentences filled with awkward words.
That memory is faint; there’s no beginning and the end fades
into the years. That little girl, you see, was me. I was one of the
lucky ones — memorizing things was never very hard for me — in
school, at church — anywhere.
But for many of us, memorizing facts and information is a
difficult task, which often leads to failure. Even things we know
today seem to leak out of our memory banks as we sleep, because we
certainly don’t remember them tomorrow, let alone next week — or
when we really need them. And these are memories that usually don’t
There is something that matters, though. We need to remember
what God tells us in his Word. When we’re tempted to lie. When
everything goes wrong. When we have a fight with our best friend.
When we fail a test. When someone says something untrue about us.
When we need to make a big decision. In almost every situation of
life we need to have God’s Word “hidden in our hearts” so we can
respond the way God would want us to.
I’m sure I don’t have to convince you. As someone involved in
children’s ministry, you already believe it’s important for
children to fill their memory banks with verses that jump quickly
to the front of their minds or slip easily off their tongues when
needed. They need words that make sense and shape the way they
think and react to the events of their everyday lives. Are you
sure, though, that you’re using the most effective methods to
ensure that Scripture sticks?
How Memory Works
Close your eyes for a minute and think back to your childhood.
What memory comes to mind? How old are you? What are you doing? How
are you dressed? Who’s with you? Where are you? How do you feel
about what’s happening? Why did you remember that memory so
quickly? What triggered it? Did you hear something or smell
something around you right now that brought that certain memory to
mind? Are you eating something or in a place that seems to have
triggered your memory? Was it connected to my story of learning
Psalm 23? Did it happen with your family or in a kitchen? Could you
smell dinner on the table? Are you curled up safely on someone’s
Recent advances in research technologies such as PET scans
(Positive Emission Tomography) and fMRI (Functional Magnetic
Resonance Imaging) help us better understand how and where memories
are stored in the brain. Scientists can actually see information
being stored and retrieved. What these studies teach us is that
short-term memories must move to different storage areas of our
brain to make them permanent. So let’s take a quick look at the
five main memory paths and discover how we can create learning
activities that’ll make it easier for children to store — and
later retrieve — God’s Word.
There’s a good chance most of the methods you already use to
help kids memorize Scripture are semantic memory activities.
Semantic memory is formed through visual or verbal processing of
School classrooms and most Christian education ministries rely
heavily on activities intended to help children learn important
factual information. Now research is showing us that two things are
critical if we want to help move factual information learned
through verbal and visual word-based methods down the pathway to
the permanent storage area for semantic memory in the brain. First,
the new information must be connected in some way to existing
knowledge, and second, it takes repeated processing of new
information to make those connections strong enough to deposit the
information into long-term memory.
The brain is constantly trying to make sense of information. If
that information isn’t meaningful to us, we can repeat it over and
over, and our brain won’t send the information into permanent
storage. So, while repetition is one useful tool, meaning is far
more influential. When you help children make associations,
consider comparisons, and see similarities between the new
information and matching information already in their long-term
memory banks, you’re creating meaningful connections that move
semantic information into long-term storage.
Amazingly, even though we tend to rely heavily on semantic
memory methods in schools and our children’s ministry programs,
this path actually takes more effort to establish permanent memory
and to access it when we need it.
• Repeat the verse many times throughout the lesson to explain
• Have children say the verse every time the leader says its
• Play word games that help children understand the meaning of the
words in the Bible verse.
• Ask children to explain the verse in their words to be sure they
understand what it means.
• Have children write or draw a picture of how they’ll do what the
memory verse tells them to do in the next week.
Episodic memory paths are much more easily accessed. These
memories are associated with locations — that’s why walking back
into the family room helps you remember what it was you went out to
get in the kitchen! Every time you create the context for new
information, you speed it on its way down the episodic memory path
into long-term storage. Who could forget crawling into a big black
plastic “fish” at VBS and learning, like Jonah, the meaning of
obedience. Imagine how much easier it would be to remember John 14:15, “If you love me, obey my
commandments” connected with that lesson!
• Create an environment that’s slightly different for each
week’s Bible lesson. Connect the environment to the Bible story and
verse as much as possible.
• Hold up a picture or an object every time you say the verse.
Better yet, give children something or have them make a craft
connected to the verse. Have them say the verse during and after
making their craft or when using their object.
• Wear a hat, shirt, or certain colors that connect to the verse
as you explain the meaning of it. For example, wear red for the
verse “though your sins are like scarlet.”
Have you ever wondered why you find yourself singing some crazy
song you heard in a commercial days ago? I’m still breaking out
into “We are going to play Blue’s Clues” weeks after my grandsons
are back home!
We all know the power of music in making and retrieving
memories. Music is one way we develop conditioned responses that
access our automatic memory pathway. Much of what you learned in
school that you use without even thinking about was moved
permanently into storage down the automatic memory path, such as
the alphabet, multiplication tables, sight words, and lots of
songs. Any time you make use of rhythm, rhyming, and melody, you
help information fly into long-term storage.
• Sing the verse.
• Have children say the verse to a rhythm or beat. Have children
play instruments or clap their hands to a beat as they say the
• Create rhymes that help explain what the verse means.
Muscle power! Movement is the primary key to the procedural
memory path. What your body does over and over again becomes
routine, such as tying your shoe, riding a bike, or driving a car.
Connecting movement and routines to information accesses the
procedural memory lane. That’s why finger plays and actions help
young children remember Bible stories — and memory verses.
• Add motions to the verse — or better yet — to the memory
• Create an action kids do every time they catch you saying the
verse during the lesson.
• Have children march around the room while saying or singing the
• Have children pantomime what they’ll do in certain situations
related to the verse.
• Play games that creatively illustrate the truth of the
Emotional memory RULES! More powerful than a speeding bullet, or
at least than every other memory path, the brain begins working
with emotional information much more quickly than any other
pathway. That can be good or bad. For example, if the emotion
stimulates a strong sense of fear, our automatic stress-responses
may take over. If you’ve ever watched a child struggle trying to
repeat a verse she “knew” before Sunday school, you may’ve seen the
effect of stress stemming from the fear of making a mistake in
front of everyone. That’s bad emotion.
If, on the other hand, children experience the fear Jonah felt
in the belly of that big fish, they’re more likely to remember how
Jonah responded and obeyed God’s directions. That’s good
The more memory paths we weave into our learning activities, the
easier it’ll be for children to hide God’s Word in their long-term
memory banks and retrieve easily when they need it.
Think about my experience learning Psalm 23. I was 6. Multiple
memory pathways tucked away Psalm 23 in my memory banks. And 50
years later it’s still there. It stuck!
The support and encouragement of my parents and the pride and
approval of my dad at how well I did each time I repeated the
verses were powerful emotional connections that quickly established
long-term memories. Though bits and pieces of the context have
faded, the episodic memories created standing in the kitchen still
trigger connections. Even the meter and rhythm of the words
stimulates an automatic response — I actually feel my body moving
to the beat of the words as I say them. The association between
phrases helps my semantic memory link them together. And over the
years I’ve come to experience more deeply what it means to know the
Lord as my shepherd. And, after all, meaning is what we really want
kids to tuck away for life.
• Tell children how a verse makes you feel — use body language
and facial expressions to show your emotions as you repeat the
• Ask children to show you how the verse makes them feel as they
say it aloud.
• Use dramatic storytelling techniques as you explain what the
• Use R.E.A.L. Learning to evoke emotion that cements
Sue Geiman is vice-president of products at Group
Publishing, Inc. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses,
and prices are subject to change.