Brain Architecture Game.

Translating the neuroscience of early learning into the simplest possible language – to create ‘aha’ moments that lead to greater investment of human and financial resources.

The need

Neuroscience has fundamentally changed the way early childhood development is understood. There is a new appreciation of the first 1,000 days of life as a critically formative period of brain development. During this time ‘toxic stress’ – sustained / extreme stress that cannot be coped with, or can only be coped with at a significant cost — is particularly damaging and leaves its mark for life on the structure of a child’s developing brain.

Not surprisingly children raised in poverty are more exposed to the conditions that lead to toxic stress. In South Africa, 60% of children younger than six years live in households with a monthly per capita income below the country’s accepted lower poverty line.

The effects of poverty are however not inevitable – they can be mediated by parents / caregivers who give children the right care and support and through an eco-system that values and supports these caregivers. The challenge lies in finding ways of communicating powerful information from neuroscience to key target groups in a way that enables them to understand and act on this.

The innovation

Project leader, Barak Morgan has identified the direct relevance and applicability of neuroscience to ECD in the context of South Africa, where children face high levels of socioeconomic adversity. Inspired by highly successful developmental neuroscience research translation programs in the USA and Canada, this project is adapting the ‘brain architecture game’ (developed by the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child) into a tool that can be used to explain brain development and the impacts of environmental and social stress to target audiences, and to galvanise a broader base of action and leadership for early care and education.

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 objective of the game is to translate the neuroscience of ECD into the simplest possible language that ‘the person on the street’ (including policy-makers) can understand and internalise in ways that change ECD policy and practice for the better. And to do so in a way that does not compromise scientific accuracy

Key insights

We continue to iterate with the design of the Brain Architecture Game based on feedback from game participants. Our experience is that the AHA moment can profoundly affect participant’s personally (as they reflect on their own parenting practices) and in the way they approach the work that they do.

The art lies in finding the balance between conveying the message that brain architecture is fundamentally shaped in the first six years of life, with the caveat that it is never too late to make a difference in the life of a child.

The project team

Dr Barak Morgan is a biologist and medical doctor. He is a Research Associate at the MRC Medical Imaging Research Unit, Department of Human Biology, in Cape Town. He works as a researcher in human social – cognitive – affective neuroscience.