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brain game

A child’s early years are the most important for brain development. During the first 1,000 days, enduring stress on children is particularly damaging and leaves its mark for life. Children need the correct care and support during this period, which sets them up to grow into healthy adults who are able to cope with life pressures like social tension, physical challenges, and school or job-related stress. Developments in neuroscience illustrate the importance of the first 1,000 days for brain development. But there is a need for ways to explain these findings in a way that is accessible to policymakers, parents, teachers, and anyone who is interested in Early Childhood Development.

To translate neuroscientific research about stress and brain development, Barak Morgan, project lead for the Innovation Edge’s Development of a South African Developmental Neuroscience Research Translation Initiative, wants to create a ‘brain game’ that can be used as a hands-on tool for explaining brain development and the impacts of environmental and social stress.

The idea for the ‘brain game’ is based on the ‘The Brain Architecture Game,’ which is in development in the United States. This game allows players to build as tall a structure as possible out of straws and pipe cleaners. This structure represents a developing child’s brain. The structure is shaped by positive and negative experiences listed on ‘life experience cards’ that players draw from a pack.

Positive experiences might include language-rich environments and access to high-quality medical care, while negative experiences includes ‘toxic stresses’ such as physical abuse. In the second stage of the game, which represents the years six to eight, players draw more life experience cards. If a player draws a card that indicates a ‘toxic stress,’ the player hangs a weight on the brain, which puts stress on its weak components. The point is to show how a brain develops to be able, or unable, to cope with stresses later in life.

Morgan wants to create a South African appropriate version of the game, with each level pertaining to a certain period of childhood development. The first would be development in the womb, and the second would be from 0-1 years, going up incrementally.

“The game will help players realize how much the early years count,” says Morgan. “It could be used by anyone who wants to get an understanding of brain development.”

The value of such a game lies in the experiential element. It is more hands-on for players than simply listening to a presentation or reading a paper about brain development, allowing them to see how a brain is constructed and how sensitive it is to environmental and social influences.

The game will be relevant in the South African context, where children face myriad stresses while growing up. Domestic violence, neighbourhood violence, crime, family dysfunction, substance abuse, child abuse and poor support networks are prevalent and pose threats to the wellbeing of developing children.

Many young children face ‘toxic stress’ -- stress that cannot be coped with, or can only be coped with at a significant cost. In the long-term this type of stress is physically and psychologically harmful with consequences that include increased risk for a wide range of adult-onset illnesses like autoimmune disorders, substance abuse, and various cardiovascular conditions. Psychologically, it is associated with increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance addiction, poor social skills, suicidal behaviour and suicide.

Children who are raised in poverty are more susceptible to toxic stress. They are more liable to not cope psychologically and more likely to suffer physical organ damage and mental illness than their more affluent counterparts (Taylor et al. 2011). In South Africa, as many as 58% of children younger than nine live in households with a monthly per capita income below the country’s accepted lower poverty line.

However, the effects of poverty can be mediated by caregivers who give children the right care and support to cope with the associated stresses, illustrating the need to get knowledge about early brain development into the realm of ECD policy and practice. The aim of a locally developed 'brain game' is to do this.

Read more about the Innovation Edge’s Development of a South African Developmental Neuroscience Research Translation Initiative.