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brain health

Brain Health for Kids

What's good for the goose is good for the gander. This is true about brain health…for kids.

For the last several years, University of Illinois Extension Family Life educators have been educating citizens throughout Illinois on the importance of brain health. By providing Brain Health series workshops and monthly Wits Fitness brain health exercise classes, educators have worked diligently to inform the general public about brain health contributors. While the team's efforts in this area has earned national recognition and awards, the focus has largely been on adults.

As a mom of two young boys, I often think about their brain health. While I regularly teach adults about brain health contributors – the importance of sleep, eating a heart healthy diet, managing stress, exercising regularly, having social support, and stimulating the brain with challenging activities – I wonder how I can positively affect my children's brain health. Like other parents I know, I ensure they get the required amount of sleep, that their diet is well rounded (not all candy!), and that they are physically active. Still, as a brain health educator, what should I be doing to help my boys adopt brain health contributors so their brains are strong throughout their lives?

Research has demonstrated that adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle can ward off cognitive decline in the future. Through lifestyle factors and completing brain challenge activities, the brain can be strong and vital throughout life. Investing in brain health is important across the lifespan – for adults and children.

As they are developing, children learn life-long patterns of behavior and parents play an essential role in modeling healthy habits. Childhood is the prime time in which parents can teach and reinforce the contributors of brain health and teach kids that engaging in brain challenges is fun and "a part of daily life." As my children see me exercise, it is my hope that they learn that exercise is important and something that we just do on a daily basis. The same goes for brain health. When my children see me try something new, challenge myself intellectually, or even complete a word puzzle, I want to send the message that taking care of our brains is something we do everyday.

I regularly think that my children get enough brain exercise through schoolwork. Even though that may be true and it is important that they learn and grow in knowledge and understanding, developing a daily habit of exercising the brain needs to be challenging, rewarding, and FUN. The goal is to grow life-long learners who make brain exercise a daily ritual.

How can we help our kids have healthy brains now (and later!)? Here are a few ideas:

  • Anything that is new is good. Encourage your kids to try something new – on a daily basis, if you can. Anytime we learn something new, our brain benefits from the challenge.
  • Use a wide variety of brain challenges. Different brain games focus on different skills including memory, problem solving, and creativity. Having a well-balanced approach to brain challenges ensures that all of the brain gets a good workout.
  • Use games. Many popular board, trivia, and word games are excellent brain builders. Chess, Sudoku, crossword puzzles, words finds, and other board games are accessible, inexpensive, and can be interactive. Games can even be made up! From a young age, my boys like to play "the rhyming game" in the car. This completely made up game involved me thinking of a word – any word – and they had to think of a word that rhymed with it. They often begged to play it anytime we were in the car. Instant, easy, and free brain health activity!
  • Think outside the brain health box. When I ask adults what they do for their brain health, responses largely involve puzzles and paper-pen activities. While those activities can be beneficial for our brains if they are challenging, brain health activities can be so much more! Learning a new language, trying a new sport, learning a new craft, taking a fun class, going to camp, learning new skills, taking a trip….anything that challenges your child will have a positive effect.

As my children, like many others, are very interested in technology and "screens" I am often concerned about what effect screen time has on their developing brains. As with anything, moderation is key. Strive to balance screen time with interaction, family time, and brain-enriching activities.

True for adults and children, the important factor of any brain health activity is that it is interesting, novel, and new. Challenging the brain through novelty helps neurons to grow. Just like the muscles in the body, the brain needs daily exercise to thrive.

To learn more about brain health programs offered by Family Life Educators, click here for Educator contact information.

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