Thursday, February 4, 2010

So hard to get whole brains

As there seemed to be some interest in the last activity box session, I thought you all might be interested in round #2. Star had asked to know ‘…how brains work and make us do things…’. I decided to interpret that as an inquiry on the nervous system as opposed to an invitation to discuss determinism =) That being the case, I put together my best attempt to address neuroanatomy to the kiddos. These activities are meant to be fast moving, make use of visuals and encourage the kids to ask as many questions as possible. Present a concept in no more that 1-2 minutes, punctuated by a different sensory system. i.e. show a picture, then do a drawing, then a thematic snack, then a principle, etc. review often to show how the ideas fit together. Of course, I’m basically making all this up, so I could be totally wrong.

Principle: Organs of the body are made up of specialized parts called cells. Those cells work together to get things done. (Note: Because my kids are already aware of molecules, I had a foundation to build on).


This is a single neuron. What does it look like? (roots, branches, etc. etc.)

Neurons work in teams. Can you work in a team if no one talks to each other? Neurons talk to each other through these tiny threads. Note: I figure dendrites and axons are probably too much at this stage.


Who can see the neurons in this picture? Are they connected to each other? What would happen if the neurons couldn’t talk to each other?

(Note: the low light exaggerates the effect, but they were jumping up and down a lot.)

Principle: Bunches of neurons make up different parts of the brain.

Break: I had them draw neurons and networks of brain cells on a mirror using dry erase markers.


The brain has three main parts: The thinking part, the feeling part, and the moving part (Note: Yes, I am simplifying)

Point out cerebellum, cerebral cortex and brain stem. I chose to tell them the brain stem was responsible for feeling. This is not technically true, but I didn’t have a good picture of the mid-brain, and I was going to have a better example later on.

Ask follow up questions like: If you are moving your hand, which part of the brain is working? If you are thinking about playing a game, which part of the brain is working? If you are feeling happy about winning a game, which part of the brain does that?

Principle: The brain is connected to the rest of our body through nerves.

This is a good chance to chase them around the house and ask them which part of their brain is doing what.

Once their energy is a little bit reduced, move locations. I took them to the dining room table.

Fortunately for me, I had been able to buy some lamb’s brains from a sandwich shop on the way home from work. It was amusingly hard to prevent them from putting garlic and pepper on them =) If you don’t want to use a real brain, try making a brain out of playdough or something.

At this point, I brought out the brains. Star was a bit unsettled by this, but Dandellion was enthusiastic. We split open the brains and practiced identifying the cerebellum, mid-brain and cerebral cortex. I brought out the picture of the human brain and compared which parts were bigger. Was this animal better at thinking or feeling or moving? Etc. etc.

After we had fun with the brains, I thought a treat would be a good idea. I bought some cotton candy and used the strands as an example of a neural network. It was loads of fun.


  1. You should be a schoolteacher!

  2. I cannot believe you dissected a brain with your kids. You know that's going to be something they tell they're friends later in life as proof of how weird their parents are. Also, for just a split second I thought that was going to be the "thematic snack." Also also, your kids are now smarter than I am.

  3. I thought you were going to feed them the brains too!!
    Dandilion cracks me up! and that face Star was making = awsome!

  4. Wow! That is SO cool! Your kids are so lucky to have a Dad that is that into them! They will never forget that lesson I'm sure- you would be the best teacher.

  5. Thanks all! I do enjoy these kinds of activities with the kids. For some reason they are easier for me than free play. I'm basically just making them up as I go along, so if anyone has ideas on how to teach more effectively, I'm all ears.

  6. I don't think I could dissect a brain at home! That was pretty neat, though, and it's great that you guys do so much at home to encourage learning. Great job!