Building Brains Together group offers play activities to local families through park posters

Don’t let your children know, but the new activity posters that have popped up on lampposts around Henderson and Nicholas Sheran Lakes are actually helping them build their brains.

Building brain activities are as simple as finding colours and listening for sounds as you walk along the paths.

The posters, placed by University of Lethbridge neuroscientists Drs. Robbin Gibb (BASc (BSc) ‘77, MSc ‘01, PhD ‘04) and Claudia Gonzalez (MSc ‘00, PhD ‘04) and the Building Brains Together (BBT) group, are designed for families to engage their children with simple activities as they make their way around the city paths.

“The Walk and Play signs went up after the playgrounds had to close due to Covid-19,” says Gibb of the posters located on both sides of the Lethbridge Little Library stands. “We thought it would be great for families walking on our paths to have fun ways to interact as they move along. Our Building Brains Together group has focused on play as the key means to building healthy brains, and since our face-to-face interactions with families have had to stop — we are reaching out with things like the posters.”

The activities are simple, including games such as a walk bingo card (you take a picture with your phone and fill it out as you walk), an exercise to look for colours along the path, and to listen for sounds such as barking, laughing or birds singing. There’s even an obstacle course where kids run around benches or jump on pathway cracks. All the activities are informed by years of basic neuroscience research.

A mother and her daughter take part in some of the Building Brain activities at Nicholas Sheran Lake.

“By playing these games, children are building connections in the areas that support the executive function skills that are so critical for life success,” says Gibb. “A lot of this play involves serve-and-return interactions and it builds fundamental connections in the prefrontal cortex, a key brain area for executive function and for social understanding.”

The Building Brains and Futures initiative, out of which the BBT group was born, started in 2014 following the release of data from the provincial government’s Early Child Development Mapping Initiative. This initiative assessed development of kindergarten-aged children in five domains: physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and thinking skills, and communication skills and general knowledge. The results showed that Alberta children were behind the Canadian average and children in Lethbridge were behind the provincial average.

“In Lethbridge, less than 50 per cent of preschoolers demonstrated typical development in all five domains,” says Gibb. “That is unacceptable, so members of the Early Childhood Coalition decided to do something about it.”

The group was very active last summer, securing grant support that allowed them to hire summer students who set up tents in city parks and talked to parents and caregivers about how playing with their children would help develop their brains. They provided access to information about the project and handed out kits containing brain-building games.

“By the end of last summer, our group talked to more than 500 parents and gave out more than 100 of the brain-building bags,” says Gibb.

With children out of school and care facilities due to the COVID-19 situation, Gibb and her group have now found a way to keep that development going.

“We are also contributing activities to families receiving food hampers. We’re just really trying to imagine how we can help in this interesting and challenging time,” she says. “ We have been working on our own YouTube channel to demonstrate how to play with children and we have recently added baby games and more games for three-to-five year-olds on our website and are working on adding games for six-to-eight year-olds as well.”

With the help of Gibb and the BBT group, taking a simple walk is now a way to engage a young mind and strengthen it for the future.