MUSIC AND THE YOUNG BRAIN

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The power of music to improve cognitive function has been distorted into urban myth. Play Beethoven to a child and reap the benefits of superhuman intelligence in the years to come. Listen to Mozart before an exam and do better than anyone else in your class. Of course it is not that simple (and indeed rigorous scientific studies have disproved many of the initial studies that got society excited about music as a ‘magic bullet’) but there is a good deal of highly scientific evidence that suggests music is still well worth getting excited about.

Myth one. Musicians have bigger brains.

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EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: BECOME A BUTTERFLY!

In the honor of letter M we’ll be mulling over the Magnificent Monarch Butterfly who migrates to Mexico each year.

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Monarch butterflies go through four stages during one life cycle, and through four generations in one year. Not all the generations migrate, but every year the generation that migrates will fly around 20,000km to find their warmer climate for the winter! (That’s a long way, as our butterflies discovered after they traveled part of it!)

There are lots of cool things to learn about butterflies in general, and the 4 stages of their life cycle is captivating for all ages:

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EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: ANCIENT EGYPTIAN JEWELS WITH BUTTONS

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Here’s a little activity to make your children more attractive to the gods!

It is believed that in ancient Egypt both men and women of all classes wore as much jewelry as they could afford. This was to show their wealth and status, but also because they thought it would make them more attractive to the gods.

We’re not quite up for working with real gold in our family (as the upper classes wore) or even copper (as the Middle classes wore) and while we probably could try our hand at a little bead work (as the lower classes wore) we thought we’d shake up history and make some historically inaccurate collars from paper plates, buttons, sequins and glue.

If you are keen to read a very brief overview of Egyptian fashion before you start, I suggest this link.

Then grab your supplies:

  • Paper plate
  • Any items to be ‘gemstones and jewels’ (Ie buttons, sequins, stickers, glitter, macaroni etc)
  • Glue
  • Scissors
  • (Paints, pencils etc optional)

Cut a ‘neck sized’ off-center hole in your paper plate, with a cut across at the narrowest part. (This cut is the back of the collar, and will allow the collar to open and fit over the head). Test that it fits the young royals neck before you proceed. (This way they will better understand the finished result before they start decorating.)

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Sit the plate upside down on the work bench and cover in glue.

Decorate as you wish and allow to dry. Wear your creation with pride.

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Of course each child approached this differently; Evie was all about the pattern, Elka was totally into buttons etc. this variation is healthy, and also a good reason to leave any exact ‘how to’ demonstrations out of the picture to avoid mimicry.

You can expand your collection of jewels by creating an arm cuff (toilet tube is perfect) or even a cardboard headdress.

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With all these supplies on hand some of your tots might not be keen to make jewelry, and if they are inspired to create something else than that is even better- let them go forth and create! (Roman had many plans of what he could make, and in the end he chose to create an electronic button disk instead of an Egyptian collar – love the way this guy thinks!)

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AFTER SCHOOL ACTIVITIES (how are you programming your child?)

Programming is strong language to use when referring to a child, (and as the parent of 2 independent thinkers, I have no illusion that children are robots who will blindly do as you instruct!) but with the ever expanding research into how our brains develop, there is a good deal of ‘programming’ that we do of our children every day, weather we are thinking about it or not. From the moment they are born, what we say, what we do, and what we encourage is shaping our children’s physical brain, and thus determining (in many ways) the way our children respond in adult life.

Of course I fully support the notion that the brain is plastic into adulthood, so I’m not saying childhood experiences fully shape the mind and are irreversible (indeed quite the contrary!) but how our children develop is largely shaped by the experiences that we choose for them.

At 4 and 5 my children are somewhat late starters in the sea of classes. With classes in everything from engineering to dance, lego to piano, chess to soccer, languages to horses riding – the choice is immense, and most of their peers attend at least 2 formal classes each week. To date my own children have had no ongoing formal lessons.

My children have always attended Launch into Learning, or Rock and Rhyme, or Playgroup – and these things have been truly beneficial for my children as they developed. (I might touch on this in another upcoming post). However outside of these ‘parent and child’ preschool activities (most of which encourage free play) we have never partaken in the formal ‘out of school classes’.

This year however my children are ready. They are not too tired at the end of the day, they have plenty of time for free play (something that I believe is essential for childhood development) and they are looking to learn more; they are seeking a degree of formality.

That leaves me with the question of many parents: What should my own children be taught? With so much evidence that experience actively shapes the physical structure (and function) of these young developing minds, the decision has far more impact on their adult lives than just weather they can kick a ball or play a tune.

Of course a common solution is to let the child choose (though parents are often highly involved in selecting what choices their child is offered). Or to partly let the child choose (ie ‘you can choose what ever you like, but you must do swimming as its a matter of safety’.) Another is to go with what the child shows skills for (ie a natural climber might enrol in rock climbing or gymnastics) or in contrast what the child could improve on (ie enrolling a shy child in dance or drama to improve their ability to present.)

Ideally I would like to have my children experiences a range of activities that awaken a variety of different parts of their brain, and indeed to encourage the values I believe to to important. This seems ambitious (especially while keeping in mind that I don’t want to overload my children as I fully support the notion that a child needs free time to develop fully!)

Making concise choices about what to suggest to my own children presents a set of problems that every parent faces… What do we REALY want for our children?

In this presentation by Jennifer Senior she talks of how most parents would agree (regardless of beliefs or parenting style) that the primary thing they want for their children is ‘to be happy’. Senior suggests that the idea of ‘happiness’ is somewhat of an unreasonable expectation of any child (or parent for that matter!) – this may seem like a rather pessimistic statement, but in contrast I actually found it to be quite optimistic in tone and well supported by various studies – the presentation is well worth a watch, I can’t say it better than she does!

After having wished for happiness for so long I found this left me in a difficult position of needing to actively re-define my ambitions for my children as the values that I thought could be taught (indeed with the hope that these may in turn result in happiness as a byproduct of their endeavours, but not happiness as a primary goal.)

What do you value? What abilities or traits do you want to give to the next generation?

For me I would like for my children to have the confidence and self worth that comes from a sense of accomplishment. I would like them to extend their physical skills, as well as their analytical and creative thinking. I would like to encourage compassion for (and a genuine love and appreciation for) other people, animals and the environment they are a part of (man made and natural.)

In order to gain these skills they need to work as part of a team, understand their place in history, spend time with animals, in the environment… The list goes on.

There are many out of school activities that support these things, however the difficulty comes when you need to narrow down a selection to something your children will adore, and will also support the values you believe to be important… all while not overloading the child or sacrificing free play!

My own solution is to address some of the goals through less formal activities (ie camping can be largely child directed, and can address goals of environment and physicality as well as engaging a good deal of creative and analytical thinking – map reading, building, investigating etc).

For more formal lessons we have chosen to space these out over a month rather than have every lesson every week. (Ie music every second week, horse riding once a month and so on). This gives our kids more opportunity to experience a variety of activities without overloading each week to accommodate all the classes. This system gives my children the chance to experience a diverse range of skills (to see where their heart lies) and also ensures that their learning is still largely dictated by them (ie in the extended time between lessons it is their own initiative that drives their learning in each area.)

As my children grow I am sure they will self select the areas that they want to continue on a more regular basis, and the other aspects will fall away to a memory of something they once did. This is our solution to out of school activities. In a generations time we will see if it worked!