Open up their minds

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Glenys King, head of 400-pupil Bentley West primary in Walsall, was looking for ways to help her pupils become more receptive to learning. She decided to try a consecutive series of five, 15-minute assemblies devoted to the brain to inspire both teachers and pupils.

1) Awe and wonder The brain, Mrs King explained, is something like a very powerful computer, which sends messages around the body. She said the brain was about the size of a grapefruit, and told pupils that the amount of energy being used by their brains at that moment would be enough to power a lightbulb.

Using an overhead projector, she explained the three layers of the brain: the reptilian brain controls basic functions like breathing; the middle, mammalian, brain controls emotions and instincts, while the cortex is the thinking brain. It looks like a silk scarf, scrunched up. Mrs King wanted the children to be amazed by the complex creation inside their own bodies.

2) Sides of the brain This assembly took in the functions of the right- and left-hand sides of the brain. Pupils did exercises to link the two sides, such as touching the right foot with the left hand.

Bentley West has a unit for about 15 profoundly deaf children, so assemblies are signed as well as spoken; pupils also sign as they sing. Multi-sensory work like this is good brain exercise, as are any songs with accompanying motions, such as "Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree" or "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes". After this "brain workout", the children are ready for lessons.

Mrs King says that teachers should be aware of the pressures to push children through long stretches of academic work. Stopping to move around or have a good stretch will help them learn better.

3) You are what you eat It was time to talk about providing the brain with the right nourishment. Children were surprised to realise that it is as important to feed their brains as their bodies. A recap of what they already knew about nutrition showed that what is good for the body is also good for the brain. To perk up thinking, a banana is better than chocolate. Water is important, too. Most children don't drink enough water, and they won't learn as well if their brain is dehydrated. Research has shown eight to 15 glasses a day are needed for the brain to function at its best.

4) The air that we breathe Mrs King talked about how oxygen flows around the body and into the brain. The children did deep-breathing exercises to help them become quiet and calm. They learned that deep breathing will help them in stressful situations.

5) Mind games The children tried different ways of remembering words: through context, mnemonics, chants and tunes and word association. As a game, Mrs King gave them things to memorise, which their teachers would later test them on back in class.

Sources: Accelerated Learning for the 21st Century by Colin Rose, (Pounds 12.95 from Accelerated Learning Systems, 01296 631177).

Brain Food: nutrition and your brain by Brian and Roberta Morgan (HP Books, 1987, out of print)

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