If someone external had walked in into the GSN common room in the Biocenter at the beginning of March, he or she might have come to the conclusion that the students had become slightly mad. One could see GSN students sitting in front of a box full of paper brain hats, gluing strings on them. Others were colouring bottles of water green. And you could have seen me, sitting in front of a laptop, discussing the “sensory integration game” with my fellow group members. Clearly, Kids Brain Day was approaching.

Getting up at 6am to prepare games – WHAT?!

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If you run out of ideas for making pictures of children, just make them point at a brain.

The following day it was an early start for everyone involved. At 8am more than 20 PhD and Master students from the GSN  were already running around the Biocenter, eagerly moving tables and chairs, models of the eye and ear, and also big plates of green and red jelly brains. Why?

Well, because that day we invited children of various ages (kindergarten, primary school and high school) from Munich schools to visit the Biocenter to learn how the brain works. I was part of the primary school group, which means that my group prepared activities for children in “Grundschule” – i.e. between the ages of six and nine. Our programme was centred on the senses and how the brain processes information coming from the environment. Of course, this was quite a challenge: how to explain how smelling works without mentioning chemoreceptors? And how to explain vision without mentioning cones, rods and simple cells? So instead, we thought of some games to illustrate the working of the brain a little.

“What did you do at school today, Ben?” “We were eating brains!”

And those activities did include eating brains (only the previously mentioned jelly brains of course), guessing fruits and spices by smelling them and modelling sensory organs and the brain using clay. At the end of the two hour session we played the integration game: each child from a group of three received one aspect of a sensory percept: either a visual cue (colour), a somatosensory cue (the feeling of the object) or an olfactory cue (the smell of an object). Then the children had to come back together to figure out what the original object was. Was it an orange for example? Mint? A Pineapple? Strawberries?

“But exactly WHY are you doing this to yourself?”

When I told my colleagues and friends that I helped out at the Kids Brain day, some of them asked why I was doing that to myself. In the end, children are lively, cannot pay attention and it is impossible to explain the complicated processes in the brain to them. What I usually responded was that, at least for me, the aim is not to make children learn the details about the vision pathway or long term potentiation. For me, the aim is rather to make children see how much fun and how exciting neuroscience, and science in general, can be. Plus I want to create positive associations within the university setting and make it less of an intimidating place.

In terms of the short attention span- if one makes the effort of thinking about interactive games, children are actually very interested and ask more (and clever!) questions than in any lecture I ever attended. Children only get bored and impatient if someone starts giving a speech with words they don’t understand. But then again, I also get bored and impatient if I have to listen to a lecturer using words I don’t understand.

For my birthday I want to get a microscope

All in all I think this year’s Kids Brain Day was a success: “our” children took part in all the games we prepared and asked many (seriously, many many!) questions. They laughed about the homunculus we showed them (who wouldn’t!) and they modelled awesome eyes and brains out of clay (ok, to be fair they also modelled pizzas and snowmen, but hey, these are also very important!). After telling the children that it is only possible to look at brain cells with microscopes, a girl went up to me and told me that her birthday is approaching and that she wants to get a microscope as a present. Success indeed and a motivation for next year’s Kids Brain Day!

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Clay figures made by the children. There were some brains and eyes, but try to spot the snow man and the pizza!

And for everyone who wants to try out making jelly brains, here’s the recipe!

 

 Jelly Brain recipe

For around 10 jelly brains, you will need:

Method:

  • Mix the package of instant jelly and sugar in a pot
  • Stir in the water
  • Heat up the solution while stirring, until everything is dissolved
  • Rinse the mould with cold water. Then pour in the liquid jelly into the mould.
  • Let everything sit for 5 hours in the fridge at least
  • Put the mould into warm water before getting them out, it should make it a bit easier

 

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