Brain Awareness Week: How to talk to children about the brain

This post is also available in Dutch.

How can we teach children about the brain? Our study showed that children respond to storytelling. Sceptical? During #BrainAwarenessWeek, do some citizen science and come and replicate our study.

The brain’s neighbourhood from the tale “Mimi the microglia” by Cogni’Junior.

Reaching out to the public and children: a challenge

It’s Brain Awareness week! During this week brain researchers all over the world reach out to the public to tell everyone about the brain and what they’ve found in their work in the lab.

It’s important for scientists to tell non-scientists about their work, but it can also be a challenge. When trying to explain their complex studies, scientists have to make a lot of choices about how to simplify their work to keep it understandable for non-experts, but without losing some of the important details (or limitations).

When explaining science to children, scientists can, for example, use a story with mighty neurons (and helpful friendly cleaning cells) to keep them engaged and feel connected to the new information, and thus help them remember. But this also creates an image of a body full of cells like tiny little people, which, although cute, is not super accurate.

Are stories just fun or can they also be educational?

Scientists would hope that by telling this story that takes place in and around the brain, a lot of information will still trickle through and reach the young reader. It’s a challenge to keep the number of confusing details to a minimum and still fit a lot of accurate neuroscientific knowledge into these stories.

One example of such a story is “Mimi the microglia,” a tale available in the Donders Teaching kit. Microglia are really useful “helper” brain cells. In this story, Mimi, one of the microglia, decides to go on a trip around the brain. She is looking for the brain’s “boss” and tries to follow messages sent from one neuron to the next, tracing them backward until finding the original sender – which, she thinks, can only be brain’s boss, right? I won’t spoil it for you, but go and read the story (see bellow). Apart from being a fun little story, this tale actually contains a lot of information about the neurobiology of the brain.

Recently, the creators of this story (a group of neuroscientists I’m part of, from the non-profit organization Cogni’Junior) tried to find out how much children actually pick up from these stories. By having a class of 8-year-olds draw what they knew about the brain before and after teachers read them the tale we were able to investigate how much they had learned.

Examples of scientific concepts that were drawn by kids.

By looking at the drawings and what items were featured, we could see that the children picked up on a lot of the information from the tale. Instead of drawing the brain as simple blocks like they did before, most children switched to including circuits of neurons in the brain, the different brain cells and their functions.

How certain concepts changed in how often they were depicted before (pre test) , immediately after (post test) and 4 days after (test D+4) reading the story

Even more interestingly, although the kids usually depicted neuroglia as small little people just after hearing, the results showed that this humanizing of the cells actually decreased over time. However, they still remembered the different types of cells and their functions just as well as they did right after hearing the story. This showed that the children were able to extract the scientific knowledge introduced in the tale and could see the characters of the stories for what they were: a fun way to learn.

Let’s tell more scientific stories!

A call for help!

So far this study has only been done in one class! Although it’s already a very interesting result, we really want to verify their findings with more classes. So, we encourage you to use the tale and repeat the study by:

1) Asking children to draw what they know about the brain before and after hearing the tale.

2) Contacting the non-profit organization Cogni’Junior (contact@cognijunior.org) to send us the drawings and be part of the replication adventure!

 

Written by Roselyne Chauvin, edited by Annelies and Monica

 

the tale “Mimi the microglia”:

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