Integrated Brain Fitness for June

Friday, June 3, 2016

Give yourself a gold star for each of these brain-healthy activities you do this month.


Many childhood experts and scientists believe that free play is an essential part of childhood—and important to cognitive development. Even the United Nations has weighed in: in 1989, the UN approved the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes “That every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” Yet, in some places, children are engaging in less free play than previously.

And that’s not good for the brain. Researchers have shown that free play is a great tool in developing of a myriad of cognitive skills, from memory and recall to planning, reasoning, self-regulation, complex problem solving, and language.1

So what is play? As one set of experts defined it, play includes “activities that are freely chosen and directed by children and arise from intrinsic motivation.”2 Here are some ideas for helping your kids get playtime in this month.

  • Idea 1: The first idea is the simplest: create time and space for your child to play. As an adult, you might be wondering what your role is. According to one expert, “research on adults’ various roles in play suggests that they need to be sensitive to the child’s needs in the moment, flexible in choosing the way they intervene, and willing to follow the child’s lead.”3 (To learn more about how play is good for kids, and how adults can facilitate it, check out this great article from the Minnesota Children’s Musem.)
  • Idea 2: There are children’s, science, and discovery museums that allow children to play and explore in many other parts of the world. For instance, there is the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York; the Early Start Discovery Space in Wollongong, Australia; the Museo del Niño in San Juan, Puerto Rico; the Children’s Museum in the Canadian Museum of Civilization Gatineau, Quebec; and the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. This is just a starter list…find out if there is one near you and take a trip!
  • Idea 3: Get 40 age-appropriate games for creative play for your kids in the book Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Child Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Ever.

Learn More

If you’d like to learn more about the advantages of play for children, there are many books and other resources. For example, check out The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind, a child development expert and professor emeritus of Tufts University.

1 Lockhart S. Play: An important tool for cognitive development. HighScope Extensions. 2010;24(3):1-8.
Dewar G. The cognitive benefits of play: Effects on the learning brain. 2006-2016.
Miller E and Almon J. Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood, 2009.
3White RE. The power of play: A research summary on play and learning. Minnesota Children’s Museum. 2012.

The Scoop on Sugar

While the World Health Organization recommends that people get no more than 10% (or even 5%) of their daily calories from sugar, kids typically eat more. In some countries, much more.1 In the United States, for example, the average preschooler gets about 13% of their calories from sugar, which jumps to 17% among teenagers.2

Given that childhood and adolescence are important epochs of brain development, how does this above-the-recommendation sugar consumption affect brain health? Although most studies have been conducted in rats, research suggests limiting sugar is in order. Studies have shown that too much sugar in adolescents can change the brain in ways similar to severe stress,3 can impair learning,4 and can even have long-term effects on decision-making and memory performance in adulthood.5

All that said, kids still sometimes crave something sweet. Here are a few recipes that get their sweetness from fruit instead of added sugar. Give one a try!

  • Recipe 1: Banana Bread Pudding
    This banana bread pudding gets its sweetness from bananas and raisins, so there’s no need to add sugar. The almonds, bananas, cinnamon, and eggs all offer potential benefits for brain health, too.
  • Recipe 2: Sageberry Popsicles
    For a light summer treat, try this easy-to-make, brain-boosting alternative to store-bought popsicles.
  • Recipe 3: No-Sugar Sesame Cookies
    These tasty cookies will fulfill your sweet tooth without added sugar. Plus, the tahini and sesame seeds are a good source of lignans—chemicals that some studies suggest may improve cognitive performance.
  • Recipe 4: Chocolate Fudge and Fruit
    For a brain- and body-healthy dessert, serve skewers of fruit with this decadent but sugar-free chocolate fudge dipping sauce.

True or false: Sugar makes kids hyperactive

Many parents worry that sugar will make their kids hyperactive. But despite various research projects over several decades, scientists haven’t found any strong evidence between sugar consumption and hyperactivity.6

Shopping tip

Lots of foods at the grocery store contain added sugar—even ones you might not expect, like tomato sauce and soups. To check if something you’re buying has added sugar, look for ingredients ending in “-ose” (glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, and so on)—these are all forms of sugar. So are honey, agave, molasses, and syrups like corn and rice syrup. 

1WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children.” Mar 4 2015.
2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Consumption of added sugar among U.S. children and adolescents, 2005-2008.” February 2012.NCHS Data Brief No. 87.
3Maniam J, Antoniadis CP et al. Sugar consumption produces effects similar to early life stress exposure on hippocampal markers of neurogenesis and stress response. Front. Mol. Neurosci. 2016 Jan 19;8:86.
4Hsu TM, Konanur VB et al. Effects of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup consumption on spatial memory function and hippocampal neuroinflammation in adolescent rats. Hippocampus. 2015 Feb;25(2):227-239.
Reichelt AC, Killcross S et al. Impact of adolescent sucrose access on cognitive control, recognition memory, and parvalbumin immunoreactivity. Learn Mem. 2015 Mar 16;22(4):215-24.
6Huynh N. Does sugar really make children hyper? Yale Scientific. 2010 Sep 1.

Growing Young Brains with Physical Exercise

Thanks in part to busy schedules and the lure of technology, kids aren’t getting as much exercise as they used to—at least in some parts of the world. We all recognize that physical activity contributes to healthy bodies, but it turns out it probably gives kids’ brains a boost, too. So this month, take some time to get out and get active with the children and teens you know. Here are some ideas: 

  • Idea 1: Host a dance competition. Each child (and adult, if you want) can choreograph a dance to share, or just improvise. After the competition, have a dance party where everyone teaches the rest of the group their moves.

  • Idea 2: Make a day of hiking and picnicking. Choose a local park with an appropriate walk/hike for your family’s fitness level, and pack a delicious lunch to bring along.
  • Idea 3: Grab a frisbee and head to your local park, beach, or other open space to toss the frisbee around. If you want to make it more interesting, play a game of frisbee golf, where you aim at a certain tree or other landscape feature and see how many throws it takes to hit it.
  • Idea 4: Choose a new physical activity you have never done before, and take your family to give it a try! There are many, many options, such as these:
    • Head to a trampoline park if there’s one nearby. Jumping is fun for the whole family, and great exercise, too!
    • Take an indoor rock-climbing class together.
    • Plan a day of river rafting, kayaking, or another aquatic adventure.
    • Borrow some tennis rackets, pick up some fresh tennis balls, and try your hand at tennis.

How physical fitness affects children’s brains

Multiple studies support the idea that higher levels of physical fitness may benefit the growing child’s brain. Here’s how one scientific review summed it up:
“Physical activity and higher levels of aerobic fitness in children have been found to benefit brain structure, brain function, cognition, and school achievement. For example, higher fit children have larger brain volumes in the basal ganglia and hippocampus, which relate to superior performance on tasks of cognitive control and memory, respectively, when compared to their lower fit peers. Higher fit children also show superior brain function during tasks of cognitive control, better scores on tests of academic achievement, and higher performance on a real-world street crossing task, compared to lower fit and less active children.”1

1Chaddock-Heyman L, Hillman CH, Cohen NJ, Kramer AF. The importance of physical activity and aerobic fitness for cognitive control and memory in children. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 2014 Dec;79(4):25-50

How Much Sleep Do Kids Need for a Healthy Brain?

In 2014, a group of experts gathered to review the research and update the National Sleep Foundation’s sleep recommendations. Here’s how much sleep they agreed children need to be at their best:

  • Newborns = 14-17 hours daily
  • Infants = 12-15 hours daily
  • Toddlers = 11-14 hours daily
  • Preschoolers = 10-13 hours daily
  • School-aged children = 9-11 hours daily
  • Teenagers = 8-10 hours daily

While some kids are great sleepers, others aren’t. About 20-30% of parents of young children worry their kids aren’t getting enough sleep, and, according to a recent study, only about 10% of American teenagers get enough sleep.

So how to help kids get the sleep they need? Here are some scientific findings that might be useful.

  • Finding 1: According to a global study on 10,085 parents with kids, a bedtime routing is a real help in getting younger children to fall asleep earlier and more quickly, wake up less at night, and increase sleep duration. That means doing the same activities in the same order every night before turning out the lights. Parents whose kids had a regular bedtime routine reported fewer behavior challenges in the day, too—things like hyperactivity and difficult behaviors. The study also found that the more nights you follow the routine, the better the outcome. 1
  • Finding 2: Adolescents may be losing sleep due to smart phone use at night. While everyone should avoid using phones before bed (the blue light disrupts sleep), it may be particularly important for teens. That’s because teens often use their phones even more than adults, including after “lights out.”2 Using phones and computers late at night is associated with insomnia.3 Avoiding cell phone use (or other blue-light screens) for at least an hour before bed may improve sleep quality.
  • Finding 3: Perhaps not surprisingly, family functioning can affect children’s sleep. When parents express more negative emotions, when a parent and child experience significant conflict, when there is marital conflict, and other family issues can reduce sleep quality for kids.4

For expert advice on children’s sleep, check out Dr. Craig Canapari’s website. He’s the director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center.

The importance of sleep to children’s brain health

Getting enough sleep is crucial for cognitive function. Memories are consolidated during sleep, meaning that they are gradually strengthened and pushed to long-term storage.5 What’s more, lack of sleep is leads to poorer attention.6 That may be why lack of sleep and poor sleep quality are associated with worse academic performance in adolescents.7 Poor sleep in young people is also associated with lower self-esteem, depressive symptoms,8 suicidal behavior,9 and more.

Worried about your child’s sleep?

Try talking to your pediatrician. If needed, your child may be able to have an overnight sleep study that might help you shed light on the issue!

1 Mindell JA, Li AM et al. Bedtime Routines for Young Children: A Dose-Dependent Association with Sleep Outcomes. SLEEP. 2015;38(5):717-722.
2 Van den Bulck J. Adolescent use of mobile phones for calling and for sending text messages after lights out: results from a prospective cohort study with a one-year follow-up. SLEEP 2007;30(9):1220-1223.
Munezawa T, Kaneita Y et al. The association between use of mobile phones after lights out and sleep disturbances among Japanese adolescents: a nationwide cross-sectional survey. SLEEP 2011;34(8):1013-1020.
3 Fossum IN, et al. The association between use of electronic media in bed before going to sleep and insomnia symptoms, daytime sleepiness, morningness, and chronotype. Behavioral Sleep Medicine. 2014;12(5):343- 357.
El-Sheikh, M., Buckhalt et al. Sleep disruptions and emotional insecurity are pathways of risk for children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2007;48: 88–96.
Bell, B. G. and Belsky, Jay. Parents, parenting, and children's sleep problems: Exploring reciprocal effects. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2008;26:579–593. 
5 Rasch B and Born J. About Sleep’s Role in Memory. Physiol Rev. 2013 Apr;93(2):681-766.
6 Lim J and Dinges DF. Sleep deprivation and vigilant attention. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1129:305-22.
7 Deward JF, Meijer AM et al. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2010 June;14(3):179-189.
8 Fredrikson K, Rhodes J et al. Sleepless in Chicago: Tracking the Effects of Adolescent Sleep Loss During the Middle School Years. Child Development. 2004 Jan;75(1):84-95.
9 Liu X. Sleep and Adolescent Suicidal Behavior. SLEEP 2004;27(7):1351-8.

Help Kids Learn about The Brain

It’s great for kids to learn themselves about how their brains work, and how important their brains are to every part of their personality, perception, abilities, and relationships. A couple of good resources include:

  • Frontiers for Young Minds
    A site that shares state-of-the-art neuroscience research in a way kids can understand. Not only do scientists check the articles for accuracy, but a young reviewer (aged 8-15) checks to make sure the article is clear and interesting for a young audience.
  • Neuroscience for Kids
    A site from the University of Washington filled with ideas and experiments for kids that help them learn about the brain.
  • NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
    The National Institute on Drug Abuse has put together a website to answer questions teenagers might have about drugs and drug abuse. Among other sections are ones on the brain and addiction and a brain science blog.

And for the parents…

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