Think back to the first time you drove a car. It may have seemed like a hopelessly complicated process: position your hands at 10 and 2, brake at the right times, follow all traffic laws, and keep an eye on other drivers.
You could have said, “I just don’t have it in me. Driving isn’t my thing.” This would be a FIXED mindset way of thinking. But instead, you took the GROWTH mindset approach: you practiced, practiced, and practiced some more. Now, driving is probably second nature, something you can do while singing along to the radio.
Pretty impressive, right? This is neuroplasticity at work.
Why Teach Neuroplasticity to Kids?
When kids understand neuroplasticity, their perception of their own abilities also changes. It becomes much easier for them to understand growth mindset and embrace mistakes, obstacles, and challenges.
In this article, we provide helpful resources and activities to teach your children or students about their brain's ability to grow and change. Use these activities at home or add them to your classroom or homeschool curriculum.
Let’s start by making sure you understand the basics.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and grow throughout a person’s life. Until recently, scientists thought that this was only possible in early childhood. After that, scientists believed that the brain “solidified” and became fixed in its habits. However, research has shown that the brain continues to change even into old age.
Like a physical muscle, the brain gets stronger the more you use it. The brain is a “pattern-seeking device.” When the neurons in your brain are activated in a particular pattern, it’s faster and easier for your brain to follow that same pattern in the future.
This means when you use your brain to complete a task, the brain “remembers” the task, so next time it becomes a little easier. The time after that, it’s even easier, and so on.
The bottom line is that our brains aren’t static. Through repeated practice and continual challenges, we can build pathways that make our brains stronger and smarter.
How to Teach Neuroplasticity to Kids: Activities and Resources
1. Talk About Their Brain
Provide a Very Basic Explanation of the Main Parts of the Brain
The cerebrum is the biggest part of your brain. It’s the “thinking part” of your brain, and it controls your muscles and holds your memories. The cerebellum is in the back of your brain, and its job is to control balance, coordination, and movement. The brainstem connects your brain to your spinal cord. It’s in charge of the activities you can’t control, like breathing, digestion, and your heartbeat.
Explain Neurons and Pathways
When you were born, your brain came with neurons, a type of tiny cell. When you learn things, your brain sends messages from one neuron to another. If you do the same thing enough times, your brain eventually makes a connection (or path) between neurons. This makes activities easier, and you can do them better and better.
Imagine that you’re in a big field filled with tall, overgrown grass. Your job is to get to the other side. The first time, crossing the field will be really difficult—you’ll have to fight your way through the big, tall grass. But if you keep trying, you’ll get there.
The next time, it’ll be a little easier. Every time you cross the field, it’ll get easier and easier. Eventually, you’ll create a new path in the grass from going over it again and again.
You can also make a different analogy: establishing new neural pathways between brain cells is like building a bridge to cross a ravine. Show this short clip from the BBC documentary The Human Body, which explains the idea.
The graphic below is included in the Big Life Journal - Teen Edition.
Make the Connection
This is just like neuroplasticity. You’re in charge of your brain and you can learn anything you want, no matter how difficult it seems at first—you just have to go over it again and again.
Discuss the Value of Mistakes
Mistakes help us learn, and they make our brains grow. If you were walking through that grassy field and you fell in a hole, that’s okay. You wouldn’t stay there; you would just get up and remember the choice you made to get there.
Next time, you would know that the hole was there, and you could walk around it. Mistakes teach you how to improve next time.
2. Share Amazing Facts
To help kids understand the incredible power of their brains, share amazing facts like these:
- There are as many neurons in the brain as there are stars in the Milky Way: about 100 billion.
- Your brain physically stops growing around age 18, but it keeps changing forever. Even as an adult, you can still get better at all kinds of skills.
- Do you know how powerful your brain is? It can produce enough electricity to power a lightbulb!
- By design, our brains are all about growth and change—as is the whole human body: Your body makes about 2 million NEW red blood cells every second!
3. Build a Brain Model
Build a basic brain model from Play-Doh to help your children or students better understand how the brain works. You can use different colors for the various parts and regions, plus pipe cleaners to hold it all together.
4. Create a Brain Poster
Another powerful way to teach kids about neuroplasticity is the “I Can Grow My Brain” poster from Big Life Journal’s Growth Mindset Printables Kit. The poster asks engaging questions and can be used as a coloring sheet, providing a fun visual that teaches children different ways to grow their brains.
5. Celebrate Mistakes
Explain to your child that mistakes make the brain grow. In fact, the brain does NOT grow just from getting the answers right. To keep strengthening neural pathways, we must continue challenging ourselves and going to the next level of difficulty. This is going to involve mistakes, and that’s great!
When you make mistakes, embrace them, and talk to your child about what you’ve learned from the experience or what you will do differently next time. Do not be too hard on yourself, especially in front of your child, and model persistence, resilience, and the willingness to take on a challenge.
Even better, when you or your child make a mistake, take the opportunity to celebrate. Give a high five and say, “High five! You’re learning!” or, “Woohoo! Your brain is growing!”
6. Brainstorm ways Neuroplasticity has Already Worked
Help your children or students come up with a list of activities that were once difficult and became much easier with practice: riding a bike, counting or doing the math, reading, roller skating, playing an instrument, drawing, or coloring, even walking and running at one point.
“Remember how hard it was to add numbers when you first started? But you kept practicing, and now you can even multiply and divide!”.
You can also remind them of how they learned to ride a bike.
“Think about when you first started riding a bike. It was hard, wasn’t it? Your brain had to think about staying balanced, watching the sidewalk, pedaling, steering with the handlebars…But as you practiced over and over, the neurons in your brain sent messages back and forth until a path was formed. Now, you can ride your bike without even thinking about it. That’s because your brain has created a ‘bike-riding’ pathway.”
Keep the list somewhere visible, like on your refrigerator or bulletin board in your classroom or child’s room. When children feel that something is too hard, remind them of all the things that were once “too hard” and are now second nature.
Explain that this concept applies to any task, no matter how challenging. Sure, they might make a lot of mistakes at first, but that’s part of the process. The key isn’t perfection, but persistence. The more the task is repeated, the easier it will become.
7. Read Fantastic Elastic Brain
Your children will learn from (and love) Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: Stretch It, Shape It by JoAnn Deak, an educator, and psychologist.
This book is an engaging introduction to the brain, explaining to children that trying new things without giving up strengthens your brain—and that making mistakes is one of the best ways the brain learns.
8. Create Interactive Visuals
Teacher Cindy Chernett Brown suggests using an interactive visual to help children understand neuroplasticity.
- Two students hold up colorful pictures of neurons.
- The teacher then provides many pieces of cut yarn to represent connections between neurons.
- She asks a member of the class to tell her a skill they are working on, such as soccer. She then asks students what you can do to get better at the game of soccer.
- Each child who gives a suggestion selects a piece of yarn and gives one end to each of the students holding the neurons. After many examples, the class can see how thick the collection of yarn is getting.
- The teacher then gives excuses for not going to soccer practice, such as weather, injury, or the season-ending. With each excuse, she takes away a piece of yarn (representing connections between neurons).
With these simple resources and activities, you can help children understand the amazing science of neuroplasticity. This concept goes hand-in-hand with growth mindset, so you may also want to read our four-week guide on teaching growth mindset to kids.
Armed with this understanding, the children in your care will be ready to tackle challenges, embrace mistakes, and keep trying, learning, and growing.