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Science, Health, Tech

Kids and calmness: Teaching children to understand their "incredible, flexible brain"

Your brain controls your senses, your movement and your thoughts. It’s essentially what makes you, you.

 

At University of Delaware’s Laboratory Preschool this summer, teachers took a hands-on approach to guiding children ages four through eight through the science of the brain.

The second Laura Morris pushes a button on her speakers, a group of 4- to 5-year-olds perks up. They start to sing.

 

“My equanimity! Everything’s gonna be alright. Equanimity! I got balance deep inside.”

 

Morris is a teacher with the University of Delaware’s Laboratory Preschool’s “My Incredible, Flexible Brain: I can be Mindful Camp.” She says equanimity is mental calmness and composure — knowing how to calm down or pause and think in a difficult situation.

 

“And the nice thing about the song is that we can thread those phrases in: ‘Offer some calm,’ ‘I see you’re getting worked up,’ or ‘Take a breath,’” Morris said.

 

Morris then hit a small gong, and asked her campers to take a breath, stop and think and stay calm. 

 

Those are all lessons the camp tries to teach children each day, said Cynthia Paris, the director of the UD Early Childhood Laboratory School, which runs the camp.

 

“We see so many children who need intentional supports and strategies to manage emotions, to self-regulate, the executive function of I can plan, I can organize, I can follow through, I can maintain focus,” Paris said.

 

Hence the need for a camp on mindfulness and the brain. Paris said she wants children to learn how to think about how others around them react to what they do, and how to read each other’s bodies.

 

“It’s one thing to know what you are experiencing, but how is that other child experiencing it? Perhaps because of something you just said or did. It’s awareness of environment and self and others and then responding appropriately,” Paris said.

 

So why teach them this from an early age? Morris said childhood is when your brain starts to develop, based on the connections you make or the experiences you have.

 

“The biggest amount of growth happens in those first five years. If you think about children trying to make sense of the world with every experience they have, with things they encounter they’re trying to understand how the world works,” Morris said.

 

And once you understand that, there’s more to learn about the biology of the brain.

 

Down the hall, Alexis Holzmann is teaching a group of 6- to 8-year-olds that their brain isn’t just floating around in their skull. It’s protected by a fluid that cushions it.

 

She places an egg into an empty container.

 

“Put our brain inside of our skull. Let’s give it a little bit of a shake.”

 

Holzmann shakes the container and the egg breaks. The children scream with delight.

Then, she plops another egg into a container filled with water. 

 

As she shakes it, some of the water flows out of the container. 

 

But nothing happens to the egg.

 

“But the egg’s not cracking!” one child yelled. 

 

“This was meant to illustrate that there’s actually one other thing inside our skull. It’s our skull, and then in between our skull and our brain is cerebrospinal fluid, which helps to act almost like a cushion for the brain so that it’s not just banging up against the sides of our skulls,” Holzmann said.

 

Each day is a new experiment, new conversations and new questions. Paris - the camp’s director - says there’s no guarantee the children are absorbing everything they teach them about emotions or science. But...

 

“Much of it is through observation that we can see a little one who went over to a child who was very upset, and she says ‘let’s do the countdown by five’ and she was coaching another child who was very upset,” Paris said.

 

When Delaware Public Media asked some of the children what they had learned about the brain and control, they got these responses:

 

“The brain weighs three pounds!” said Selah, 4. 

 

“That your brain connects to your ears. You could hear and you could think,” said Mariska, 6.

 

“And one of the parts that helps you with motion is the cerebellum. It helps with motion and balance. Woah!” said Kanut, 6, as he tried to steady himself first on one foot, then regaining his balance on two.

 

Balancing on your own two feet or balancing your thoughts, at UD Laboratory Preschool’s “My Incredible, Flexible Brain Camp,” it all goes back to calmness, and thinking before you do something.

 

Disclosure: The UD Laboratory Preschool's media policy precludes Delaware Public Media from using the last names of children interviewed for the story.

Song: "Equanimity" by Betsy Rose. Calm Down Boogie: 2008.