Archive for January, 2013

Brain Development III

For simplicity of explanation, the left hemisphere is associated with analytical, rational and logical processing, where as the right hemisphere is associated with abstract thought, non verbal awareness, visual & spatial perception and the expression and modulation of emotions. In the western world, most individuals navigate through their everyday life in a fashion dominated by left brain thinking. Missing out on right brain activity results in too much thinking going on: too much frantic doing, not enough time being. ~http://www.mindfulnet.org/page25.htm

When I first read the quote above I envisioned the factory school that we are discussing at Google Plus thanks to the blogs by Justin Schwamm. I thought about the push to memorize facts, the goals of teaching students how to organize their thoughts, their time, and their lives. I was reminded of the what was once college-level lessons being taught in the elementary school years and of the elimination of the arts from the curriculum. And I shook my head yes in agreement. And I sighed.

As I continue my search for information on how to design experiences to enhance the left-brain-right-brain-coordination I realize that my main barrier to this is that I really don’t understand what the right brain does. I think that when I do I will be able to see how and when the two sides work together. From there it is just a matter of applying it to activities that are age appropriate for a toddler, for my grandson, which is what this journey is all about.

But first I have to understand it … in a way that my brain processes the information. My brain doesn’t like the technical stuff. It seeks out more of the “how” than the “why” and usually jumps as fast as possible into “how do I apply this to day-to-day living”. So here we go. My brain begins its journey of processing what I have read so far.

The Right Brain – What It Isn’t
It is often easier to describe what something “isn’t” rather than what it is, so let’s begin there. What the right brain “isn’t” is … the left brain!

As I understand it, the jury is out on whether or not there really is a “left-brain-right-brain” distinction, but, regardless, I believe that there is definitely a process of logical thinking and creative thinking going on inside our brains. The left-brain processing is about labels, facts, analyzing, structures, the details.

It is about organizing the facts that I have learned about left-brain, right-brain. It is about creating a sequence of topics for this article so that one idea moves to the next and to the next until the summary at the end addresses the issue mentioned at the beginning.

For a toddler, it is about “what is this” and “which ones match”; it is about knowing that a bird is a bird, a car is a car and a truck is a truck. And it is about knowing that a bird is a bird because it has a beak and wings, and a tail. And it is about discovering that all four-legged creates aren’t dogs and that a cow is like a dog but “look, it has horns and it is bigger”. It is about “first you put your pants on and then, next, you put your shoes on.” It is about sticking a paintbrush into paint and applying it to paper to make a mark. It is about counting the dogs, the trucks, the birds, the shoes and the paintbrushes. Left-brain.

That, to me, is the easy part – the easy part to understand and the easy part to teach. Now for the right-brain.

The Right Brain – What It Is
The right brain, to me, is harder to define. It is more abstract and more holistic. It is about perception, emotions, and representation. It is about creative thinking, seeing, and doing. It is about the look and feel of things. It is about relationships, impressions, and imagination.

The right-brain is about taking the technical details about left-brain/right-brain processing and envisioning what that looks like in the world of a toddler. It is about painting a symbolic picture of the information with words and images. It is about imagining activities, for in the classroom, that supports the research.

And in a toddler’s world it is about exchanging that paintbrush for a toy car to move the paint around or to paint on foil instead of paper. It is about being able to see a “dog” in a shadow drawing, putting a dollie on the potty, and playing peek-a-boo.

Bringing the Two Worlds Together
This is where I began: what types of activities can I be providing in order to enhance the process of the left-brain neurons and the right-brain neurons firing at the same time, working together, creating a complex network of pathways?

My grandson loves labeling letters and numbers. Left-brain. That will be my starting-off point. Now, how many creative ways can my right-brain think of that will use the numbers and letters as a springboard?

Some ideas that “spring” to mind are:
* personifying the symbols
* using sponge numbers/letters as paintbrushes
* creating a matching game of coloured symbols and their shadows
* creating a “Where’s Waldo” type image using letters and numbers
* use a plastic bird to paint “6” footsteps, etc

All of these ideas a pretty typical in a preschool environment But seeing this from left-brain/right-brain development takes it to a new level of understanding. Now, I can build on left-brain activities and knowledge by using it for creative art activities, knowing that I am not only helping with development of skills and the brain as a whole but also, specifically, with the complex neural net.

Knowing what I am looking for also helps with observations. For example, a couple of weeks ago I set up a magnetic board and my grandson has been exploring numbers by manipulating the magnetic symbols. Yesterday, he discovered that he could slip the numbers in the little space behind the magnetic board, making them disappear. Interesting (and frustrating as I now have to remove the board to get the numbers back out… again .. as he now has to practice this new game.) But let’s look at what is happening: something happened initially that caught his attention and triggered the idea of pushing the number cards into the space. Something in his brain said, “hmm can I do it with this number as well? And this one?” Did our questions help inspire curiosity about where they went? And most importantly, on a practical level, – how long will he keep exploring the possibilities and how many more times will I have to take the magnetic board back down in order to retrieve the missing numbers?

Our role as mentors and educators
Our job is to provide the opportunities for learning and the expansion of the neural pathways and the complexity of the neural net. To do the job the best that we can, we need to be aware, at some level, of how the brain works so we can use this information to stimulate, to inspire, and to build as many pathways as we can.

And now I’ll leave you with this quote:

Curriculum–In order to be more “whole-brained” in their orientation, schools need to give equal weight to the arts, creativity, and the skills of imagination and synthesis.

Instruction–To foster a more whole-brained scholastic experience, teachers should use instruction techniques that connect with both sides of the brain. They can increase their classroom’s right-brain learning activities by incorporating more patterning, metaphors, analogies, role playing, visuals, and movement into their reading, calculation, and analytical activities.

Assessment–For a more accurate whole-brained evaluation of student learning, educators must develop new forms of assessment that honor right-brained talents and skills. ~ http://www.funderstanding.com/brain/right-brain-vs-left-brain/


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Brain development; building neural pathways; windows of opportunity.

If you have watched the research on early childhood development you are well aware of these key elements of growth. 

I have to admit that in all my years in the field of early childhood education, child development really didn’t score high on my “interest” radar. Yes, I knew and saw the importance of identifying a child’s abilities and guiding the child to the next levels. Yes, I understood and believed in the importance of getting those neurons firing and the pathways connected before the “window of opportunity closed”, but the specifics, the workings of the baby steps of the process really weren’t my focus. The broader picture, the whole child, and the subject of behaviour were what I wanted to focus on. And I did. 

Today, however, with a 19-month-old grandson visiting on a regular basis, things are a little different. Now, every tiny little element of development interests me. I’m older and wiser, now, I guess.

The Plot Thickens
This past week, I read the book, “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova. The book is about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and at one point in the story her doctor pointed out that she could “pass the tests” because she was able to use a variety of techniques to remember and work around memory problems. I thought about this, from the perspective of early childhood education: “this is about neural pathways – about having so many connections, from so many directions, that if one fails there are ten more to fall back on. This is why building neural pathways is so important in young children!”

With the book completed, I turned to the internet to research the building of a complex network of pathways in a young child’s brain. But I didn’t find what I thought I would see. Yes, there was a lot of information on neural pathways and stimulation but it all seems so linear: build the connections between sensory experiences and awareness; provide opportunities for fine motor development and large motor development; provide lots and lots of opportunities to touch, see, feel, smell, taste, and hear and to explore and experience anything and everything.

As I scanned the pages of information, I was puzzled. I couldn’t believe that with all the experts out there talking about this area of development, with all the websites full of information for parents, educators, and other researchers, that I couldn’t find anything on cross-stimulation, of creating a more complex neural network than that of “the average bear”. 

What did I think I would find? I thought I would see research and information about the importance of mixing sensory with cognitive, of including activities that stimulated the left-brain and right-brain at the same time, of activities that involved cross-mind and cross-body stimulation. Is the information out there? I do hope so. I hope that it is just that I haven’t found it- yet.

Trained as an early childhood educator, I have implemented many activities over the years to stimulate brain development but the goal was to find creative ways to development language, fine motor skills, or thinking skills, etc. Now I can see that there is another level to this network development. It is more complex than fine motor development or the development of curiosity.

I believe that when we have a deeper understanding of the complex networks then we can use this to further enrich the experiences we expose young children to, we can consciously create experiences that form the very complex web of pathways- a web that has more connections than anything we could create by chance.

Let’s take the idea of number awareness. We can look at the numbers, label them, draw them, paint them, make collages with them, add them to bulletin boards, building blocks, and cars. We can use them in games, obstacle courses and recipies. Wow – that is a lot of ways to form connections between the written number, the concept of numbers and the brain. The neural net is forming some really strong and complex pathways.

And then let’s look at sensory development. We can provide materials that are soft, hard, crunchy (crunchy to eat , to touch and to walk on); we can have children touch, look at, and utilize cotton balls, sandpaper, and tinfoil; and we can bombard that neural net with connections of sensory experiences, perceptions, comparisons, and understanding.

Now let’s think of it from the perspective of criss-cross applesauce. Let’s take those pathways about numbers and connect them to the pathways about the senses. Let’s build pathways that can zig and zag, draw on this memory and that, this pathway and that, and come back to the task at hand with a plethora of experiences and knowledge.

Imagine the workings of the brain as it processes the incoming information when the child touches and looks at the number six that has been made out of cotton balls. The brain connects with the number, with “soft”, “white”, 3-D, and then back again to the activity, whatever that might be. Now let’s add a number six made from sandpaper….r-r-r-r-r…the brain jumps to another pathway, this time to “rough” and then to “brown” and to “scratchy”.

Then, what if we point out a number six that is formed by a tendril of a plant that we see during a nature walk? Now we have perhaps jumped from the left-brain to the righti-brain, or at least to an “out of context” situation, connecting a whole other set of pathways. Or what about adding facial features to the number six? We see this type of personification all the time, but have we considered the workings that are taking place behind the scenes, the unusual connections that are being formed in regards to understanding a number?

Awareness = Possibilities
Knowing + Application = Opportunities

When planning for and talking about child development I have used the acronym SPICES to encorporate the whole child: social. physical, intellectual, creativity, emotional, and spiritual. Recently I described the concept as a wheel, with spirituality in the middle as a reminder that we are part of the bigger picture and that the greater good and repect for all things is at the core of who we are and why we are here.

Now, with the addition of “criss-cross applesauce” to the mix, we can envision the effects of a mix of spices in the applesauce: can’t you just taste the deliciousness? Criss-cross applesauce: creating spokes on the wheel that connect the SPICES together, this way and that, making the wheel stronger, more reliable, and capable of rolling along even if one of those spokes is broken.

Do you know of any websites that talks about this level of neural connections? I’d appreciate your help in better understanding this “criss-cross applesauce” concept.

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Brain Development

The early years – the windows of opportunity for making the neural connections in the brain. Research shows that some connections, if not made by a certain age, will never be able to be formed. It is our job as mentors to provide opportunities that make as many neural connections as we can.

My grandson is currently 19-months old. He has a natural ability and an interest in academic-type learning: numbers and letters. These pathways are very strong. It is easy to focus on these abilities and enhance the understanding, taking it to a new level of understanding. “But” … if we focus on the cognitive development on this plane we are risking the loss of other pathway formations.

Remember the SPICES wheel? SPICES is the acronym I use to identify the different areas of development: social, physical, intellectual, creativity, emotional, spiritual.


Creating a strong and complex net of neural pathways means that we need to be making as many connections across and around the wheel as possible. For example, we can mix a creative activity with a social interaction or a physical activity with an intellectual one. So what does this look like?

My grandson enjoys labelling numbers. He can spend long periods of time at the magnet board, removing, labelling, and replacing the magnetic numbers. We have the intellectual development, reinforcing the connections between the visual, the processing of identification, and the fine motor movements involved in manipulating the magnet pieces. But this is not enough. How do we expand on this, using his current interest in numbers and counting?

Let’s get physical – really physical. Let’s introduce activities and games that utilize the fine motors as above as well as the larger muscles in the hands, arms, torso, legs, and feet.

Yesterday, I introduced a milk jug bowling game. He enjoyed setting up the pins and knocking them down with the big ball. Now that he has an understanding of the game, I can now expand this to add opportunities for more pathway connections.


Bowling Game Options
* add numbers to the bowling pins, connecting the strong pathways of number literacy with that of muscle skills and social interactions
* use smaller bottles and smaller balls: not only developing the understanding of big and little but the muscle development needed to manipulate the different sized objects and the muscle control to use the right amount of power for each
* taking turns: build on the social interactions by taking turns, high-fiving efforts
* increasing the distance between the person and the bowling pins (depth perception, muscle control)

More Physical-Intellectual Activities
* sensory activities: writing numbers in sand; feeling numbers being written on his back with light finger pressure;
* roadways: walking, jumping, hopping from one number to the next
* looking for number and letter symbols in nature

Criss-Cross Applesauce
Besides the SPICES wheel criss-crossing connections, we also need to consider the criss-crossing within the body: left-brain / right-brain and left-side / right-side.

Left-brain / Right-brain
* a six is a six is a six. .. until you get creative and turn it into a person by adding eyes and a mouth
* a six is a number, a total … until you make it a character in a story, with emotions and experiences

Left-side / Right-side
* criss-cross: can you tap your head and rub your belly at the same time? Are you ambidextrous? Let’s play this game: pick up a number five with your left hand and stick it onto your right arm and then pick the number four up with your right hand and stick it onto your left arm.
* turn it upside down: stick the numbers to your shoes or throw the bowling ball between your legs – change up the perspective, look at things from a different angle
* number-hopping: once hopping is mastered, try using the non-preferred foot. Left-foot on 1,2,3 and right-foot on 4,5,6

From a single plane of development and cognitive understanding of letters and numbers we have expanded and strengthened the neural pathways ten-fold and more.

What other ways can we create these strong pathways? What other activities can we do to mix things up, to interconnect the SPICES development?

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