Teaching Children about the Brain: It’s All in the (Baby) Steps

Teaching Children about the Brain: It’s All in the (Baby) Steps

By: Mirela Ramacciotti

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This article comes with a pledge, that it is possible to teach childrenas young as four years of ageabout the brain. And I hope this article delivers on the promise: Here you will find steps to make teaching about the brain feasible in classrooms, whether virtual or in person. We will examine the importance and appropriateness of teaching young learners about the brain (the rationale), and how it can be done, that is, what (baby) steps we took to make it possible (the process).

The Rationale

Children at around age four, in typical developmental trajectories, have a linguistic repertoire of about 1,500 words (Loraine, 2008). This amount is part of a growth spurt that gets bigger when they are placed in school settings (Bloom et al., 1993; Gleitman et al, 1988; Nagy & Anderson, 1984). This is good news. as vocabulary size is a robust predictor of language development (Marchman & Bates, 1994; Walley et al., 2003).

Providing four-year olds in preschools with words that need to come into their repertoire is important so that the words can be understood as referents to things/objects that they need to identify and comprehend. This is the basis for information to be disseminated and for knowledge to enter children’s awareness.

Referents—the cornerstones of semantic association— have to be presented purposefully so that, at a later stage, children are able to retrieve them. This is essential for comprehending information that is connected to such vocabulary. Another factor related to exposure is that different families provide different language input to children (Hart & Risley, 1995Hoff, 2003; Rowe, 2012).

Considering that the quantity and quality of vocabulary a child receives is sensitive to variability (Mahr & Edwards, 2018), and that a greater lever for equal access to vocabulary is school, exposing children to input that is appropriate to their stage of development in frequent and constant instances, such as the ones offered in schools, makes sense.

Moving from exposure onto recognition, research points to word recognition as being a skill that children around age four are developing (Mahr & Edwards, 2018). And this cannot be left to chance. From these first steps, we can expect next that such vocabulary will be actively employed. And this is desirable, as preschool expressive vocabulary and sentence complexity predict literacy development (Scarborough, 2009).

Therefore, we are justified in providing children, as early as possible, with vocabulary that they need to recognize something that is important for their lifelong health and wellbeing. An example of this that has direct implications for this article is vocabulary related to the brain. If children are not exposed to relevant, contextually appropriate referents that provide the backbone for important content about the brain to enter their repertoire, they may have trouble processing relevant information about how to take good care of it. To put it simply, that which is not named properly, may not get proper treatment.

Thus, providing children with essential vocabulary about the brain in contexts that work with frequent and constant input—such as schools—safeguards opportunities and levels out variation in basic input for children from different backgrounds (which may or may not have exposed them to such vocabulary)  

Such vocabulary increase is not restricted to just learning new words but also involves frequency of exposure (several rounds of the same core vocabulary) and quality of input (vocabulary selection appropriate for age and context).

Once vocabulary is carefully selected and purposefully embedded in activities that can develop children’s repertoire in a given time scale, children have an opportunity to increase their repertoire and to consolidate their learning through time spent in purposeful activities in a relevant, child-centered way (Rowe, 2012). That leads us to how such activities could be formulated—the process.

The Process

This project started as a personal contribution to the brain awareness week (BAW) movement, spearheaded by the Dana Foundation. It happens every third week of March. Members of the foundation, such as my enterprise, Neuroeducamente, are entrusted with planning actions to create awareness about the brain in our local communities. This is a voluntary, not-for-profit action that the foundation facilitates by providing resources (factsheets, guides, and brochures).

These resources inspired me to devise the program I will describe here. The program consists of a set of materials for teachers in preschools to use in a week-long intervention with their students, aged between four and six years. They were first used in 2020 and revised in March 2021. They were specifically designed for children. The objective was to present core vocabulary and information about the brain through relevant, context-appropriate activities over a five-day period. The first round of delivery was conducted with more than 200 students in 15 kindergartens in seven cities in Brazil.

"Brain Awareness is for children, too!"
Mirela Ramacciotti
TT Author

Candidate schools were initially contacted and offered materials and support so that they could implement the BAW activities with their students. For schools that agreed to promote the awareness campaign, materials were sent to school leadership teams. They were responsible for selecting the participating grades, teachers, and students.

 

The first element in the pack consisted of a brief explanation to teachers regarding overall objective, affiliation (to the BAW and Dana Foundation), initial commitment and program duration.

The next step was the lesson plan for the materials. The plan consisted of a four-slide PPT presentation with: (1) title and affiliation details; (2) the Why/How/What of the program; (3) five stages/days of implementation, and (4) duration; expectations; and instructions overview together with my contact details for further support during implementation.

After viewing the PPT, teachers were directed to the activity pack which had five sequenced instruction sets—one for each day of the weeklong brain awareness campaign. Each set consisted of two pages: one with instructions for teachers and the other with activities for students. On Day 5, only one page (instructions for teachers was necessary). The whole set (Days 1 to 5) is provided below:

DAY 1 – INSTRUCTIONS FOR TEACHERS

Objective: to know that we each have a brain which is an organ that lies within the skull.

IF IN-PERSON: Materials to be provided by the teacher: a walnut, an egg, an apple, and a ball + Copies (one for each student) of the Activity

IF ONLINE: Recruit caregivers’ help to open the file and remain by child’s side to help.

  1. After the routine classroom activities, tell the class that they will learn about the brain this week.
  2. Ask if they know what brain is. [all answers are valid]

Reinforce the idea that we each have a brain [pointing] which is inside our head [head knock] and coordinates everything we do.

Comment that the brain is the seat of all learning. So, to learn well throughout our entire lives, we need to take good care of it.

Invite the class to explore what is inside the skull (the bone structure that protects the brain).

What does the skull look like? [several answers are possible; what you want here is an analogy with what is known by students, such as the skull protects the brain like a walnut or egg protects what is inside.

If you are in-person, present students with a box of objects containing a walnut, egg, apple, and tennis ball. Pass the objects to students for manipulation. Discuss with students which of these objects looks more like the brain and why [possible answers: walnut and egg because both have a hard cover that protects something more fragile inside].

If you are online, ask the students to recognize (name) and explore (describe) each of these objects projected on your screen (one at a time). Follow the same sequence of exploration described in the previous paragraph.

Distribute, or screen project, the Day 1 activity (Matching Objects) (below) so that students can register this knowledge. This can be done in the following sequence:

  • Initially ask students to connect the outside and inside views of the objects presented. If online, ask caregivers to adjust the mouse to the child’s hand so that the connecting can be done.

  • Then ask them to paint or circle the only objects that look like our brains [egg and walnut]. If online, ask caregiver to adjust mouse to the child’s hand so that circling can be done.

  • Recap, after verification of the answers, that the walnut and egg look like the brain and the skull because both have a hard shell that protects a soft core.

  • Collect/Save online the activities, properly identified with students’ names, so that they can be used again on the second day. If online, ask caregivers to save the files and mail them to you.

 

Please make a record of this day by taking photos or a video.



DAY 1– Activity Page for Students

DAY 2 – INSTRUCTIONS FOR TEACHERS

Objective: to know that we must take care of our brain

IF IN-PERSON: Materials to be provided by the teacher: a pillow, a helmet, a carrot, a rope + Copies (one for each student) of the Activity

IF ONLINE: Recruit caregivers’ help to open the file and remain by child’s side to help.

  1. After routine classroom activities, tell the class that they will learn more about the brain.
  2. Review what they learned about what the brain is [review Day 1 Activity]

Reinforce the idea that the brain, which is protected by the skull, coordinates everything we do.

Reinforce the idea that it is the seat of learning. Thus, to learn well and throughout our entire lives, we need to take good care of it.

Invite the class to suggest what we can do to take good care of our brains. [several answers are possible; what you want here is to get closer to the fundamental elements: protection, nutrition, sleep, movement]

Present/Screen project to the students the box of objects containing a pillow, helmet, carrot, and rope [for jumping].

If you are in-person, pass the objects to the students for manipulation. Discuss with students what these objects have in common and why. [possible answers: all indicate actions necessary to keep the brain healthy: protection, nutrition, sleep, movement].

If you are online, ask the students to recognize (name) and explore (describe) each of these objects projected on your screen (one at a time). Follow the same sequence of exploration described in the previous paragraph.

Distribute or screen project the Day 2 activity (Marking and Coloring) (see below) so that students can register this knowledge.

Ask students to circle the elements we need for a healthy brain. If online, ask caregiver to adjust mouse to the child’s hand so that circling can be done.

Recap, after joint verification of the answers, that fruits, vegetables [but not soft drinks and ultra-processed foods], movement [sport with proper protection is great whereas skating without a helmet is not; playing is very good for the brain] and sleep [without screens] are what help us take care of the brain.

Collect the activities, properly identified with students’ names, so that they can be used again on the third day. If online, ask caregivers to save the files and mail them to you.

Please make a record of this day by taking photos or a video.

DAY 2– Activity Page for Students

DAY 3 – INSTRUCTIONS FOR TEACHERS

Objective: to know that the brain works like a system

IF IN-PERSON: Materials to be provided by the teacher: 1 walnut and 1 walnut cracker + Copies (one for each student) of the Activity

IF ONLINE: Recruit caregivers’ help to open the file and remain by child’s side to help.

  1. After routine classroom activities, tell the class that they will learn what a brain is like inside.
  2. Review what they know about the brain [review Day 1 and 2 Activities]

Reinforce the idea that the brain, which is protected by the skull, coordinates everything we do. Reinforce the idea that it is the seat of learning. Thus, to learn well and throughout our entire lives, we need to take good care of it.

Elicit examples of how to care for it well (sleep, nutrition, movement, protection).

Ask students if they know what the brain is like inside. Explore this with questions like: Does it have any parts? Does it have divisions? [accept all responses and validate those that mention parts (= lobes) and sides (= hemispheres)].

Remind them about the walnut and how the brain looks internally like the seed of the walnut. Pick up the walnut and ask the students if they know what’s inside.

Open/Screen project {opening} the walnut carefully with the nut cracker to show how there are two well-divided parts to the seed. Comment on how the seed halves are like the halves of our brain.

Explain that our brain has two sides (halves) and other integrated structures that together are part of a central system for our functioning–the central nervous system.

Distribute or screen project the Day 3 activity (Coloring) (see below).

If in-person, initially ask students to set aside pencils of four colors: red, orange, yellow, and gray.

If online, ask caregiver to adjust mouse to the child’s hand so that they can locate with the mouse pointer each color needed (red, orange, yellow, and gray).

Once separated, you should guide students to color the parts of the nervous system by naming the parts as students color. [1 – cerebrum in red; 2 – cerebellum in orange; 3 –brain stem in yellow; 4 – spinal cord in gray]

Collect/Save online the activities. properly identified with students’ names, so that they can be used again on the fourth day. If online, ask caregivers to save the files and mail them to you.

Please make a record of this day by taking photos or a video.

DAY 3– Activity Page for Students

DAY 4 – INSTRUCTIONS FOR TEACHERS

Objective: to know that our brain has two hemispheres

IF IN-PERSON: Materials to be provided by the teacher: 1 pair of scissors for each student, 1 colored balloon for each student, 1 glue stick + Copies (one for each student) of the Activity.

IF ONLINE: Tell caregivers in advance to prepare a balloon and a Sharpie. Recruit their help to open the file and remain by child’s side.

  1. After the routine classroom activities, tell the class that they will learn more about the sides of the brain
  2. Review what they know about the brain [review Day 1, 2, and 3 Activities]

Reinforce the idea that the brain, which is protected by the skull, coordinates everything we do. Reinforce the idea that it is the seat of learning. Thus, to learn well and throughout our entire lives, we need to take good care of it.

Elicit examples of how to care for it well (sleep, nutrition, movement, protection).

Review the parts of the Central Nervous System: cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, and spinal cord.

Say that today everyone will make a brain!

Distribute/Ask caregiver to hand out a balloon to each student and ask them to blow it up to the size of a small baseball (like an arched adult hand). Comment that it is like our own brains. But, for this brain to work, it needs to use both sides. Ask them to put the inflated balloon aside.

Distribute or screen project the Day 4 activity (Maze + Cut outs) (see below).

If in-person, initially ask students to find out how the brain works in an integrated way by recruiting networks that pass through it. Then ask students to do the maze.

If online, ask caregiver to adjust mouse to the child’s hand so that they can locate the entry point with the mouse pointer and do the maze.

After the maze is done: if in-person, ask them to cut out the two parts of the brain (hemispheres) and glue each part on their inflated balloon. [*Teacher: here you can assist students who must take the balloon with one hand and glue each hemisphere]. If online, ask the caregiver to hand over the Sharpie so that the student can draw a hemisphere on each side of their balloon.

Collect/Save online the activities, properly identified with students’ names, so that they can be reviewed on the fifth day. If online, ask caregivers to save the files and mail them to you.

Please make a record of this day by taking photos or a video.

DAY 4– Activity Page for Students

DAY 5 – INSTRUCTIONS FOR TEACHERS

Objective: to remember what was learned about the brain with a song.

  1. After the routine classroom activities, tell the class that they will learn a song to remember what they learned about the brain during this special week.
  2. Review what they know about the brain [review Days 1-4 Activities]

Say that today they will learn a song about the brain.

To do this, they first need to check if they all remember a famous song: If you’re happy and you know it.

Screen project the song to refresh their memories. Sing it along with the students.

To make it a song about the brain, tell them they need to (1) learn these words, and then they will (2) sing the new song about the brain to the same tune. Finally, they will (3) perform the actions in the song to always remember about the brain.

If you know about the brain, clap your hands (2x).

If you know about the brain, and you really want to show it,

If you know about the brain, clap your hands.

 

If you care about the brain, stamp your feet (2x).

If you care about the brain, and you really want to show it,

If you care about the brain, stamp your feet.

 

If you know about its parts, turn around (2x)

If you know about its parts, and you really want to show it,

If you know about its parts, turn around.

 

If you know it has hemispheres, wiggle your hip (2x).

If you know it has hemispheres, and you really want to show it,

If you know it has hemispheres, wiggle your hip.

Sing with students several times: first in a group, then in pairs, then calling on some of them to perform for everyone.

Students should have multiple opportunities to practice each new integration (first only song lyrics; then lyrics and rhythm; finally, insert actions).

Please make a record of this day by taking photos or a video.

 

As you can see, each day of this weeklong program provided a set (teachers’ instruction pages and activity pages for students). Vocabulary learning went from brain and skull on Day 1; to actions to protect the brain (what is good to eat or do for a healthy brain) on Day 2; to parts of the brain (cerebrum/cerebellum/brain stem, and spinal cord) on Day 3; to brain organization (hemispheres) on Day 4; and to consolidation of what was learned about the brain with a song (rhyme) on Day 5.

It is important to highlight here that all activity pages were in the children’s mother language, which in our case, in Brazil, is Portuguese. But, as you can see from the sets displayed above, they are easily translatable into other languages.

Lastly, after delivering on the promise of providing an age-appropriate, step-by-step program to help children learn about the brain, I leave you with the final note that can be found in the activity pack:

Dear Teacher,

This is the end of your work this week in creating brain awareness.

Thank you so much for your care, affection, and motivation.

I’m sure your students were able to learn about the brain through your efforts.

Mirela Ramacciotti ([email protected])  

References

  • Bloom, L., Tinker, E., & Margulis, C. (1993). The words children learn: Evidence against a noun bias in early vocabularies. Cognitive Development, 8(4), 431-450.

  • Gleitman, L. R., Gleitman, H., Landau, B., & Wanner, E. (1988). Where learning begins: Initial representations for language learning. In F. J. Newmeyer (Ed.), Linguistics: The Cambridge survey, Vol. 3. Language: Psychological and biological aspects (pp. 150–193). Cambridge University Press.

  • Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. P. H. Brookes.
  • Hoff, E. (2003) The specificity of environmental influence: Socioeconomic status affects early vocabulary development via maternal speech. Child Development, 74(5):1368–1378. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3440540/

  • Loraine, S. (2008). Vocabulary development. Super Duper Handy Handouts. https://www.superduperinc.com/handouts/pdf/149_Vocabulary%20Development.pdf

  • Marchman V. A., & Bates E. (1994). Continuity in lexical and morphological development: A test of the critical mass hypothesis. Journal of Child Language, 21(02):339–366. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305000900009302

  • Mahr, T., & Edwards, J. (2018). Using language input and lexical processing to predict vocabulary size. Developmental Science, 21(6), e12685.

  • Nagy, W. E., & Anderson, R. C. (1984). How many words are there in printed school English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19(3) 304-330.

  • Rowe, M. L. (2012). A longitudinal investigation of the role of quantity and quality of child-directed speech in vocabulary development. Child Development, 83(5):1762–1774. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3440540/

  • Scarborough, H. S. (2009). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In F. Fletcher-Campbell, J. Soler, & G. Reid (Eds.), Approaching difficulties in literacy development: Assessment, pedagogy, and programmes (pp. 23–39), Sage. 

  • Walley, A. C., Metsala, J. L., & Garlock, V. M. (2003). Spoken vocabulary growth: Its role in the development of phoneme awareness and early reading ability. Reading and Writing, 16(1):5–20. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1021789804977 

Mirela Ramacciotti is a lawyer, teacher, and translator. She currently works as a trainer and researcher in Education and Neurosciences. She’s a PhD candidate in Neurosciences and Behavior and in Human Communication Disorders. She founded the MBE SIG at BrazTESOL. More at Neuroeducamente.

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