Homemade Neuroscience: DIY Experiments for Kids

We know it’s important to keep busy with activities to avoid the dreaded summer slide. We also don’t expect your child’s summer to be a hotter version of being in the classroom—you can have fun while exploring different interests! We’re a bit biased to the brain and the way it works, so here are a few fun, educational, and easy neuroscience-themed experiments that you can do in your own home during these last few weeks of summer vacation. Have fun!

Make Your Own Brain Hemisphere Hat

This one is super easy but can teach you a lot about how the brain works. All you have to do is print out the brain hemisphere templates available for download on this website. The PDF gives a small size and a larger version for those of us with extra-large brains up there. Once you’ve printed out the templates, you can begin to color the different parts of the brain—frontal cortex, occipital lobe, temporal lobe, etc.—while also learning their respective functions thanks to illustrations on the hat. For example, in the frontal lobe, we see, “Logic 3x=6,” because the frontal lobe aids our logical thinking activities. When you finish coloring it’s as simple as following the instructions on the templates and now you have your very own brain outside the brain!

Fast Hands

Reactions help us avoid touching hot surfaces, getting hit by snowballs, or colliding with swerving car. This next experiment tests the speed of our reactions with the use of a ruler. All you need is a ruler and a friend. While one friend holds the ruler with their strong hand at the bottom of the ruler, the other friend will say “GO” at which point the partner holding the ruler will let go and allow it to slide from their grasp. As quickly as possible, try to catch it so it doesn’t fall completely through your hands. You can measure how quickly you were able to let go and re-grab the ruler based on the centimeters between the new grip and the original holding place. Repeat 5 times and take an average to see who has the quickest reaction time.

Touch Here, Touch There

This activity is another partner experiment but it tests our brains’ awareness of our bodies. You’ll need two washable markers or pens of different colors. While Partner 1 stands with their eyes closed, Partner 2 will make a single dot with the marker somewhere on Partner 2’s visible skin. Now, without opening their eyes, Partner 2 will use the other colored marker to try and touch the exact same spot their partner touched on their body. You can measure accuracy by the distance between the two points. This is one of my favorite experiments because it shows us how awesome our brains truly are. Even with our eyes closed our brains know where every spot on our body is, almost like it has a 3D map of our body stored in its hard drive ready to access whenever we need it.

Afterimages

When it comes to our brains, they serve a lot of very important functions, including allowing us to experience the world around us. Perception is how our brain helps us interpret the stimuli that we are exposed to each day and includes how we smell, touch, hear, taste, and see. This experiment lets us explore a fun quirk related to how the brain works with our eyes to perceive colors. All you need to do is find some good examples of pre-images online or make your own using different colored bright markers. Some good examples and the science behind the illusion can be found here. Once you’ve found your images, go to a well-lit room and stare at one image for 35 seconds, then move your gaze to a plain white surface such as a wall, table, or piece of printer paper. You will see the same image, except the colors will be different. See if you can figure out which after-colors coincide with the originals.

Taste Test Trick

This final experiment studies how color affects our perceived taste. You will need 10 cups, 5 different flavored clear juices, and food coloring. Have someone write down the type of juice on the bottom of each cup, or on a secret note, and pour each of the juice types into separate cups (2 cups per juice). Now, add food coloring to one of each pair to dye the juice a different color from the original color. For example, dye one of the grape juices red and one of the cherry cups green. Taste test the “wrong” colored drinks and record your guesses. Now, taste test the correctly colored drinks and record your guesses. Compare and see how color affects your ability to identify the juices.

Want more?

If you are local to NeuroPlus HQ in the North Carolina Triangle and enjoy these types of activities, register for our first ever NeuroPlus hosted mini-camp on July 31st. At this FREE event, we will learn more about the brain, do some hands-on experiments, and try out the NeuroPlus games. Join us for Fun with Neuroscience!

Goldilocks and the Three…Storytelling Methods?

How did you first experience the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Was it during storytime in preschool? A cartoon on the TV? Or was it when you read the picture book yourself? No matter how you first learned of the picky girl that needed everything “just right,” you probably weren’t thinking about how your brain was functioning while you did. Luckily, that’s exactly what researcher Dr. John Hutton from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital did when he studied a group of about 30 children and how their brains reacted to different forms of storytelling. His findings were shockingly similar to that of Goldilocks and found that picture books are “just right” for young children.

Dr. Hutton imagined three ways in which young children—those around age four—could be exposed to stories. The first way was the traditional read-aloud situation in which the child does not actually view the picture book, but hears the words read aloud to them. The second scenario was the act of hearing the story while also being able to look at the picture book itself. The last way was simply viewing an animated version of the story, replicating a cartoon. He wanted to know how the children’s brains reacted when they were exposed to these different forms of the same story.

Hutton studied the activity in certain brain regions related to audio, language, and visual ability along with the connection between these different areas as the children were exposed to each of the three methods. His findings can be described as having a “Goldilocks effect” in the sense that the audio-only method was “too cold” while the cartoon was “too hot” for the young subjects’ brains. In the audio-only instance, the language regions were active but had low connectivity, suggesting that the children were struggling to understand and visualize the story simultaneously. On the contrary, the cartoon stimulated the audio and visual areas, but had low connectivity with the language region, resulting in the worst comprehension. This meant that children were actually overstimulated in the audio-visual areas to the extent that the language region could not keep up. The sweet spot was the illustrated version with the audio voiceover. This method provided the children with a nice balance between the networks and the pictures provided just enough imagery for the children’s imagination kick in, allowing the language region to keep up.

 

Sharing is Caring

These findings reinforce the idea of sharing a book with your young child as a parent. Note that “sharing” a book with your child is much different than simply reading it out loud to them. Sharing goes beyond the words in the book and involves an interactive experience for the child in which the parent is encouraged to stop frequently to discuss characters, themes, and interesting passages. Prior to Hutton’s studies, performing this type of reading with toddlers was already seen to improve cognitive and language skills, while also increasing the young child’s vocabulary, pre-reading ability, and conceptual development. By understanding picture books as the best way to engage children, parents should pass up the cartoons and read-aloud time for a nice picture book to share.

The Summer Slide: Tips for a Smarter Summer

Flash forward to cooler temperatures when you’re just now finishing up back to school shopping after a long vacation. Every parent hopes that their child can’t wait to start learning again, but when they look at you with a lost look in their eyes and they say they aren’t ready to go back, your stomach can’t help but drop a little. Despite all the fun and relaxation, it becomes clear that the infamous “summer slide” has struck again.

Summer learning loss, also called the “summer slide” or “summer setback,” refers to the loss of academic ability and cognitive function that takes place over the summer vacation period. Some students are able to catch back up quickly during the first few review weeks, but for others, the loss is too significant to brush off, resulting in a noticeable lag behind peers. A study led by Duke University researcher Harris Cooper concluded that most students will lose about 1 month of math progress while other studies have estimated this number is closer to 2.5 full months. Similarly, research shows that about 2 months of reading comprehension ability is lost over vacation. Due to the lack of summer enrichment opportunities available to low-socioeconomic status students, the loss is usually steeper, with the compounded effect of lackluster summers resulting in a full 3-year gap in reading levels compared to their wealthier peers by the beginning of high school!

 

So, how do we prevent the “summer slide?”

At first glance, this may seem like an easy question. Just like sports or an instrument, reading comprehension and math must be practiced if a student wants to improve or maintain the skills. The slide is like deciding to skip out on the gym for three months. You can’t expect to return and immediately pick up the same weights and train at the same intensity as before your break. Luckily, there are many routes to keep your brain active over summer and avoid significant learning regression. One way to ensure your child stays ahead is to participate in one or more types of summer enrichment opportunities, such as summer camps or tailored academic programs. However, with an average weekly cost of $288 per child, these programs remain out of reach for many families. So, the question holds, how does one prevent the “summer slide” without having to spend lots of money?

 

Practice makes perfect

The good news is your child doesn’t need an expensive summer enrichment program in order to prevent learning loss. Here are a few easy and cost-effective ways to curb the “summer slide”:

Set a goal. Talk to your child about how many books they should read over the summer and make a plan to get there. Research has shown that reading just six books over the summer can help combat the “summer slide” for reading comprehension. Try choosing some books that are a challenge, but allow your child to read things they will find interesting.

Read aloud. Don’t underestimate storytime! Children of all ages, even teenagers, can benefit from listening to books read aloud. Ask your children questions about the motivation of the characters and their favorite parts, or have them retell the story in their own words. In addition, parents can read literature that slightly exceeds their child’s reading level and in turn, improve their comprehension.

Stealth learning. The best way to prevent the “summer slide” is to never allow it to happen. Although this might not sound enjoyable, there are ways to incorporate education into fun activities through a process called stealth learning, or “hiding” education into activities that won’t look like schoolwork. For example, taking your child to the new sci-fi movie, and afterwards researching some aspects of space exploration or physics is a great way to allow them to have fun while also exercising their brain! Keeping reading and math a part of daily life over the summer will ensure your child won’t lose what they learned. Instead, they might even get ahead of their friends!

Use “no sun” hours in creative ways. When it gets too hot to be outside, consider using this time to exercise your child’s mind by building something out of recycled materials or Legos. Alternatively, cooking meals with your child can encourage them to think creatively about math and reading. It can also be as simple as printing out some math problems and seeing who can finish them fastest with a small reward for the top score. You can even use NeuroPlus to build upon the skills of focus, impulse control, and calmness, all of which can help your student in the classroom when they go back to school.

 

There is no secret method to preventing the “summer slide.” All it takes is a conscious effort to keep your child’s brain active. This summer, don’t let the spell of vacation take away from all the work your child has done over the past nine months. Go down to the local library or bookstore and stock up on reading material, because although the waterslide at the pool might be fun, the “summer slide” is not.

 

What are some other ideas you have for combating summer learning loss? How do you incorporate learning into your child’s daily routine?