University of Calgary nursing students, Anita Do, left, Alexa Aramouni and Noelle Mahon try out The Brain Game

The Brain Game: how early life experiences shape the development of the brain

Kids are the future of our community, but too often, a lack of early-years supports negatively impacts Calgary’s youngest residents. To raise awareness for issues that impact their health and well-being, United Way invited Calgarians to the Central Library to see how early life experiences like play support brain development.

To illustrate a complicated subject, United Way facilitated a brain architecture game developed by noted early brain development researcher Dr. Judy Cameron. The “Brain Game” is an interactive game that explains how early life experiences and supports shape the development of a child’s brain.

Using simple materials like pipe cleaners and straws, corresponding to life experiences drawn during the game, the goal for participants is to build the tallest, strongest “brain.”

“For me, it was a great way of visualizing just how critical the founding years are,” says Kirsten Barrett, a nursing student at the University of Calgary. With early positive experiences like good nutrition, attentive parenting and language-rich environments, Kirsten’s “child” was able to withstand challenges later in life like neighbourhood violence or a parent’s divorce.

“My group’s kid had a lot of great supports in the first three years so anything that happened after that could be fairly well-managed. This really speaks to the principles of resilience and developing coping skills.”

It was a different story for fellow nursing student Alexa Aramouni’s “child.”  Early on, challenges like illness and a parent losing a job seemed manageable amongst otherwise positive early supports. Later on, when the parent had addiction issues they were able to see the harmful consequences.

“What started out as hiccups in the early years quickly went from bad to worse,” says Alexa. The brain they were building started to collapse under the added weight of bells, representing negative stress.

The Brain Game shows that prevention is the best solution. By investing in early childhood, we can tackle problems before they begin. Physically seeing how the foundations of lifelong health and resilience are built in early childhood was particularly impactful for Kirsten and her nursing classmates. Understanding how a strong foundation supports lifelong learning, behaviour and health isn’t just beneficial for those in the healthcare profession: no matter where we work or what we do, we all interact with kids at one point or another, and all have the opportunity to create positive interactions.