In honor of Brain Awareness Week (March 16-22), I've focused this column on ways to activate kids' minds. Research shows that it is critical for kids to develop proper brain architecture during early childhood, so that they have a strong foundation for higher learning and function into adulthood. (Harvard has done some interesting work on this topic.)
So how do we build those foundations? There are many ways, and the key is to foster the various dimensions of kids' development (e.g., cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and cultural growth). Here are some "brain activating" ideas that can work well, both at home and in the classroom.
Here's a tried and true method. Reading opens the mind to new worlds and endless possibilities, inspiring imaginations and creativity. It can also provide an engaging way to learn facts while developing language skills. I still remember "experiencing" the Boston Tea Party and the battles at Lexington and Concord via Johnny Tremain, which I read almost 40 years ago! The same can be said of the Magic Tree House or Harry Potter series for kids today.
An ever-increasing body of data continues to link exercise with improved cognitive abilities, moods, behavior, and academic performance in children. Medical experts highlight the likely improvements from increased blood flow to the brain as one of the primary factors. This chart from a study of overweight children illustrates that even low amounts of aerobic exercise produced improvements in executive function and math achievement.
Traditionally, teaching and learning have largely been done via verbal instruction or reading. Research has shown that multisensory experiences (i.e., ones in which kids touch, taste, or smell something in addition to simply hearing or reading about it) result in much better engagement and retention. You can accomplish this with your kids by taking them to museums, zoos, or concerts. DIY projects are great for this too, especially ones that can be done in a group setting to foster social development, as are a growing list of digital media products that engage children via multiple methods and senses.
Variety and Breaks
The expression "Variety is the spice of life" could not be more true when applied to children's learning at most age groups. Traditionally, elementary students have often been taught by a single teacher in a single classroom. The only variances were usually lunch and PE (which has been reduced in many schools). Studies have illustrated major improvements in students' engagement, behavior, and performance simply by introducing breaks (brain breaks and/or activity breaks). We can employ this same concept at home to break up the monotony of kids' homework-filled afternoons; even better if we introduce some of the items above like reading and exercise!
We're talking kids -- everything is more effective when the "fun factor" is added. Alternatively stated (as all of us parents know well), kids' willingness to do anything that's not fun can be underwhelming. The challenge for all of us is to find ways to entice our kids to learn and develop their brain architecture.
My team at Adventure to Fitness embraces this challenge every day, developing adventures to exotic locations or exciting historical periods where kids learn and exercise, often without even realizing it. I cannot overemphasize the "fun factor": Although our program incorporates all of the abovementioned approaches, we've found that it's our focus on fun and thinking from the kids' point-of-view that sets us apart. It's one of the key reasons why over 22,000 schools have adopted our program, and it's also why so many parents asked us to create a "home" version of our program. (We even hear from parents that their kids use the Adventure to Fitness model to create their own "adventures," narrating their own storylines as they go on family hikes and trips.)
So what's the key to activating kids' minds? Sparking their interest. The more enthusiastic kids are about what they're doing, the more they can 1) engage with the activity, 2) retain what they learned, and 3) set the stage for advancing or taking those lessons into other contexts.