When you become a parent, you also become a teacher. Some things we teach our children are useful — letters, numbers, how to say “Mama” and “Dada” and the fact that diving headfirst down the stairs causes serious “owies.” Other things aren’t quite so important. Why exactly do we think our kids need to know the sound every single farm animal makes anyway?
But there’s one thing we parents should teach our kids about that we rarely do: the brain.
Although neurology lessons may seem more appropriate for med school than preschool, even young children are capable of understanding basic brain-related concepts. And teaching kids about them now can lead to lasting, lifelong advantages in areas like health and safety, motivation and work ethic, and socialization and interaction.
The best part is, getting started is easy. Just share the following three big ideas about the brain with your kids, and they’ll know all about their noggins in no time!
#1: The Brain Is the Boss
According to research from Temple University, most children ages 4–13 believe the brain is just for thinking and holding information. But that’s only part of the story.
- Describe the brain as a pinkish-grayish, squiggly-jiggly blob that sits in your head and doesn’t move. But it’s actually in charge of your entire body — like the body’s boss, engine or coach. The brain controls everything you do, including automatic functions like breathing and digesting food, movements like running and scratching your nose, emotions like being happy or grumpy and processing sensory information like hearing and tasting. Without your brain, you couldn’t do ANYTHING (which is why it’s so important to always wear a bike helmet)!
- Explain that the brain is connected to the spinal cord, which is connected to nerves that extend throughout every part of your body. Messages pass back and forth along these pathways at speeds up to 268 mph. So when you touch something hot, the sensation passes through nerves up your finger to your spinal cord and all the way to the brain. Then the brain processes that info and sends a message back down the same path telling the hand to move, RIGHT NOW!
- Draw and color the brain, or sculpt it out of clay.
- Draw an outline of a person and help your child fill in the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and nerves. Pose challenges like: “Pretend the person smells something yummy. Trace a path from where they experience the scent to the brain and back.” Practice with all five senses!
#2: The Brain Changes
It’s easy for kids to see how their hair is getting longer, their bodies are growing taller and their baby teeth are becoming wigglier. But it’s harder for them to know that their brains are changing too.
- Teach your children that their brains are growing and changing every day. People aren’t born with a certain level of intelligence and talent that stays static throughout life. Instead, our brains undergo considerable development — particularly between ages zero and 10. So tell your kids to help their brains grow strong by eating healthy food, getting plenty of sleep and paying attention at school.
- Empower your children by explaining that while the brain is not really a muscle, it can get stronger like one. So all the hard work they do to study spelling or learn skills like playing the piano can really pay off. Research from the University of Illinois found that information like this can help kids as young as four years old stay encouraged and keep trying when learning gets tough.
- Brainstorm a list of foods that are healthy and unhealthy for your brain — or pose some of your own and ask your child to identify which are good and bad.
- Reminding kids that their brain changes can be a good way to encourage them to try new things. “I know you didn’t like brussels sprouts last week, but your brain changes, so maybe you’ll like them tonight.”
#3: Different People Have Different Brains
Social skills like communicating, making friends and resolving disagreements become much easier when you acknowledge other people’s thoughts and feelings. But before your children can do that, they need to understand that other people have their own thoughts and feelings in the first place.
- Explain that although all brains work in the same basic way, each person is born unique and has different life experiences that affect how their brains grow. This can give your child a better understanding of why some people have special talents or mental deficits.
- Realizing that each person has unique thoughts and beliefs is a major social development milestone. So stretch your children’s empathy muscles by regularly reminding them to consider other people’s feelings and to imagine how they’d feel if they were in someone else’s shoes.
- While reading a book together, discuss what each individual character might be thinking and feeling. “Does she look happy here?” “How does he feel about this?” “Why?” For added fun, you can draw, cut out and fill your own comic book-style thought bubbles to place above each character.
With so many benefits, teaching your children about the brain is a super smart — and surprisingly simple — idea. (Don’t you think?)
Know some more brain-based activities for kids? Share them in the comments!