Fun & Food for the Brain: Training the brain to maximize learning
By Dinah Whitton.
As the seasons change, so does our focus on health and wellness. While some have abandoned their New Year’s resolutions, others are faithfully in the gym trying to meet their fitness goals. Eating well and exercising are great for the body, but what about fitness and food for our brains?
Think of your brain as a super computer that sends out signals to your body for various actions. It is three dimensional and comprised of two halves: right and left hemispheres. Your brain is connected to your spinal cord and nerves which make up the central nervous system. To say the brain is complex is an understatement!
Scientists used to believe that the human brain was fully developed in the early years of life and brain cells were lost daily. Modern science has since proven the theory of plasticity: the brain has the capacity to consistently change and expand like plastic. Dr. Michael Merzenich was among the leading neuroscientists that believed exercising the brain is beneficial for special needs and helping children with language and reading. With the numerous studies that followed from around the world, there is no doubt that the human brain can do more than we think.
The Benefits of Brain Games
Contrary to popular belief, building academic skills doesn’t only include working on reading, writing and math. Movement is an essential component to developing the skills needed for learning. Whether your child is fidgety, frustrated, bored, or just needs a little break, intentionally moving around is a great way to boost the brain. In addition to the physical benefits of movement, learning objectives can be incorporated to improve retention.
Karen Uschold has been homeschooling her children and tutoring for the past 20 years and has witnessed the benefits of brain games: “Even for a neuro-typical child memorizing can be difficult, but using movements that cross the midline can help them learn faster.”
The midline is an invisible line that separates the right and left sides of the body from head to toe. Crossing the midline is the ability to cross one part of your body over to the next (e.g., right hand touching left foot). Occupational therapists and various medical professionals believe this simple skill impacts our ability to learn. Crossing the midline indicates that both sides of the brain are communicating with one another, which is important for reading and writing.
“The more senses you’re using the more they will memorize,” said Karen, “whether it’s small or large movements; the actions can even be ridiculous, it doesn’t matter.” Adding music and/or movement can also increase retention. Imagine teaching a preschooler the alphabet without using a melody or music. The plasticity of the brain helps to associate the action or song with the subject matter.
Take a break from book work and try adding simple brain games to your day to improve retention and balance while making learning fun!
Start marching on the spot and transition into high knees while touching the opposite hand to knee.
- Simon Says
Get creative with this timeless game and get your kids moving on your command.
- Preschool Games
Have fun playing hand games like “patty cake” and see how fast you can go.
- Matching Games
Use a deck of cards or go online for a quick matching game to stimulate the brain.
- Lazy Eights
Draw a large figure eight horizontally and continue tracing over it on a chalk board, white board or large piece of paper.
Feeding Our Brains
Considering the complexity of the brain, the saying: ‘you are what you eat’ takes on an entirely new meaning. A quick internet search for the best brain foods is daunting to say the least. While it is admirable for families to load up their grocery cart with the latest trends in healthy foods, the brain needs a balanced diet. Blueberries are said to be excellent for memory; but, if you only focus on one type of fruit you will miss out on the important nutrients of others.
According to Sonia Smith, Homeschool mother and Certified Holistic Health Practitioner, the brain functions better on a balanced diet. “The body is tied together so when you are sick you won’t function well,” says Sonia. “If you feed your body well then you will perform better.”
While it may not always be easy to eat well when you’re surrounded by fast food on busy days, there are ways to fuel the brain with good food. In addition to being mindful of allergies or intolerances within your family, think about what foods are attractive to your children. “Kids are very specific, so watch what they eat first at home or at a restaurant,” said Sonia. “Incorporate what they love into a balanced diet in a creative way.”
Fun Food Tips
- Make it Colourful
Create a colourful table with a variety of veggies like carrots, celery, and bell peppers etc. accented with a healthy dip like hummus.
- Fruit Kabobs
Let your kids have some fun by arranging their favourite fruit on a skewer.
- Frozen Fruit Snacks
Make your own popsicles or jello with 100% real fruit juice (not from concentrate, no sugar added).
- Smoothie Breakfast
Turn your favourite fruits and/or veggies into a quick morning drink with almond milk.
Food For Thought
Oatmeal – high in fiber and great for memory
Cinnamon – protects the brain cells and helps to balance sugar
Apple – helps to fight declining mental skills
Nuts & Seeds – supports mood management
Doidge, Norman. “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the frontiers of brain science”. Viking, 2007.