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Play, learning and the brain

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This free course, Play, learning and the brain, examines the area of brain-based learning, with a particular focus on the development of the young child's brain, and is of particular relevance to those who work with young children. We begin by looking at the structure and functions of the brain, and the impact that sensory deprivation can have on these. We consider the implications of current understandings of brain development for teaching and learning, particularly in an early years setting, and finish by exploring the value of play (particularly outdoor play) in children's learning and the development of their brains.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • demonstrate an awareness of current understanding of the structure and function of the brain
  • understand and critically analyse the linked concepts of brain-based learning and brain-based education
  • understand the role of play in brain development
  • recognise practical strategies for developing the curriculum to facilitate children's learning through play and other rich learning experiences.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 15 hours
  • Updated Friday 12th August 2016
  • Intermediate level
  • Posted under Educational Practice
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2 What is brain-based learning and teaching?

Neuroscientists now have more sophisticated ways of examining living brains than was ever possible before. It is now possible to obtain images of the brain that show activity as it occurs. The importance of the first years of life has always been recognised by early years practitioners but the new information about the brain deepens our understanding about why this might be.

Perry and Pollard (1997) reported on the effects of sensory stimulation, or the lack of it, on early brain development. Using data from CT scans, physical measurements and documentary sources they explored the brain development of a group of neglected children. As an example of what can happen in an extreme case of sensory deprivation they published the startling images shown below.

Figure 1
Figure 1 An example of the effect of sensory deprivation on the brain

These images illustrate the negative impact of neglect on the developing brain. The CT scan on the left is from a healthy three-year-old child with an average head size (50th percentile). The image on the right is from a three-year-old child following severe sensory-deprivation neglect in early childhood. This child's brain is significantly smaller than average and has abnormal development of the cortex (cortical atrophy) and other abnormalities suggesting under-development and mal-development of the brain. The contrast is marked but it is important to remember the comparison is with a very extreme example.

Research such as that by Perry and Pollard (1997) suggests that new information about how the brain works will help us to develop more effective learning strategies. Now complete Activity 2, which will take you more deeply into the key ideas behind brain-based learning and the ways these can be linked to educational practices.

Click on the link below to read about how children learn

how children learn [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Click on the link below to read 'Overview of brain-based learning' by Wilson and Spears

Overview of brain-based learning

Click on the link below to open the activity sheet (required for the activity below)

Activity sheet

Activity 2

First click on the top "View document" link above to read the first article ‘Making connections: how children learn’. Keep a note of any points that are new to you or that you found surprising in any way, as you will need these for the next activity.

The next article (click on the second "View document"), ‘Overview of brain-based learning’ by Wilson and Spears, looks in a little more detail at brain research and links this to learning and teaching. It suggests ways in which educators could enhance their practice by drawing on this new information. Look particularly at the Twelve Design Principles and at the ways in which it is suggested learning can be maximised. Keep a note of three points that interest you in this reading and which relate specially to young children.

Using the Activity Sheet (found under the third "View document" link, above):

  • evaluate your own provision according to the Twelve Design Principles;

  • consider how you would make changes to enhance learning;

  • note any points about brain development that are particularly pertinent to you and your setting.

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