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Our brain is said to be the most marvelous organ in all of creation- and it’s no wonder. It stores, organizes, retrieves and interprets information, controls our senses and regulates bodily functions, enables us to interact with people and things around us, and protects us from harm, among other things. It is the master of multi-tasking- there to serve us whether we are aware of it or not.
The brain and nervous system can be compared to a very fancy computer with the nervous system being the highly sophisticated relay network to and from the various parts of the body. We are not our brain, but we would be nothing without it.
The brain is a mysterious organ. We do know at least the basics of how it works to support life, how it helps us learn and communicate, and how it impacts humanity and the rest of the world for better or worse.
Imparting a very basic understanding of the anatomy of the brain and nervous system here might be helpful. The nervous system consists of the brain, the spinal cord and the network of nerves that extend to every part of the body. The brain weighs about three pounds; there are about 45 miles of nerves in the human body.
The brain has five major parts: the cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, pituitary gland and the hypothalamus. The cerebrum has two halves, the right and left, and is the largest part. It is responsible for thinking, reasoning, memory (both short and long term), and for voluntary muscle movement. The right side of the cerebrum controls the left side of the body and is related to abstract thought- colors, shapes, music and creative endeavors. The left side of the cerebrum controls the right side of the body and is associated with logical, analytical and mathematical thought, and speech.
The pituitary gland is a pea-size structure in the center of the brain under the cerebrum which controls hormone production, metabolism and growth.
The hypothalamus is a very small structure also under the cerebrum, which controls the body’s temperature and helps it respond to the environment by shivering or sweating in order to maintain a steady body temperature.
The cerebellum is smaller than the cerebrum and located below it at the back of the brain. It controls balance, movement and coordination. We could not move around without it.
The brain stem is at the back of the brain and connects the brain to the spinal cord. It regulates involuntary movement such as breathing, digestion, and blood circulation. It also sorts out millions of messages going back and forth to the rest of the body. Big job!
The spinal cord is about 18 inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide and acts as a conduit for all impulses to and from every body part and the brain. It is protected from harm by the bones of the spinal column.
Our nerves are intimately linked with our senses and our emotions, which are also seated in the brain. They relay information to and from the brain so that it can function as “executive”, controlling responses to stimuli and keeping things going.
Damage to the brain can result in altered functioning. Because the brain is so complex, it is sometimes impossible to determine cause and effect accurately. Human traits like mood, preferences, and character are somewhat of a mystery, probably due to the relationship of our spiritual selves with the physical, social and emotional.
You really do not have to formally teach your preschooler about the brain and the nervous system. Answering their questions as they arise (“How do we see?” “Why does my foot fall asleep?” “Why can’t Grandma hear very well?”) will help them make a connection between the brain and the body and give them the language they need for more questions. As they grow, their questions may require finding answers together. Using a children’s book of anatomy and the Internet should provide more than enough information.
What can you do to help your child’s brain development? A healthy pregnancy and good prenatal care is the best foundation. Your baby’s brain will do ninety percent of its growing by age five or six. Maximizing your child’s brain potential is as simple as providing loving attention and nurturing combined with a balance between rich learning opportunities and rest and relaxation. Talking to and with your child, reading, drawing, spending time in natural environments so that your child can safely explore the world will provide the stimulus your child needs.
As your child grows, he or she will begin to notice the differences between humans and other creatures and between one person and the next. This will provide a chance to talk about the function of the brain and the nervous system and how this system works to make us the unique individuals we, and they, are.
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Children become acutely aware of individual differences and varying abilities when they enter school. Topics such as intelligence, athletic ability and physical disabilities may arise in their discussions with you. The role the brain plays in who we are and what we can do, how we feel and respond to life, can be discussed as part of your explanations.
At this age, what kids understand about their minds and bodies will be augmented by what they learn in school. They may not, however, be taught specifically how humans learn, remember and process information and how this impacts their lives, or about human emotions and behavior. They will probably be ready for more complex, abstract discussions at about 8 or 9.
Helping your child develop his or her brain power can be done by providing a healthy diet, reading with them, communicating often, listening to their concerns and helping them discover and develop their natural talents and gifts. Keeping your youngster connected with the natural world will help them make the connections that boost brain power.
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Older school age children will have learned the functions of the different parts of the brain and start to understand how they work together to keep our bodies and minds running. Be available to answer their questions and listen to their pondering while this is being taught.
They will also become more aware of disorders of the brain- epilepsy, dementia, emotional and behavioral disorders, addictions, cerebral palsy, autism to name a few. Help them gain understanding by researching these topics together.
If your child shows a real interest in the brain and nervous system, find a good website, like one listed below, or a webquest dealing with the nervous system so they can add to what they know. Fashioning a clay model of the brain and nervous system would make a fun science project. There are many children’s books written for students this age that will fascinate your child. Who knows- perhaps your child will discover the key to the human brain and unlock its mysteries!
This is a good time to teach your child how to keep the brain and nervous system healthy. Knowing these things can have long term positive consequences. Some tips include:
Making these practices part of your family’s daily routine will help your child carry them over into adulthood and will ultimately carry more weight than formal learning. Teaching your child how the brain works and how to keep their nervous system healthy will help them live a happy, productive and less stressed life.
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