11 Natural Brain Boosters for Kids Going Back to School
The brain is a fascinating organ! Did you know that your brain runs on 25 watts of electricity (enough to power an LED light bulb) and contains 86 billion neurons that create, maintain, and communicate with around 100 billion neural circuits within the brain itself? That is roughly the same number of stars as in the Milky Way! (1, 2) Even more mind blowing is that your brain’s trillions of connections throughout your body must work properly together to help you understand yourself and the world. (1)
Weighing about 3 pounds and comprising 73% water, the brain is said to be the most complex machine on the planet. (3, 4) It is responsible for what are called executive functions; these include the abilities to plan, manage time, remember details, regulate emotions, solve problems, be flexible, stay organized, and communicate well. (5)
Clearly, for good quality of life, it’s crucial to keep the brain as healthy as possible, and this is especially true for children’s developing brains. Let’s look at some natural brain boosters that can help kids get the most out of their school year.
The growing years are critical for brain development, and the foods children eat affect their cognitive abilities and focus. In fact, the brain is the first organ to absorb nutrients from food. Here are some of the healthy foods doctors recommend as natural brain boosters (6, 7, 8, 9, 10):
- Eggs, which contain high-quality protein, healthy fats, and small amounts of nearly every vitamin and mineral the body requires. Think breakfast burritos!
- Salmon and tuna, which contain omega-3 fatty acids that protect against memory loss. Try grilling it and offering a dipping sauce on the side.
- Greens, which contain many vitamins and minerals. Try making kale chips or adding spinach to smoothies.
- Dark chocolate, which contains polyphenols. These plant-based antioxidants protect against neurodegenerative diseases, among other things.
- Nuts and seeds, which contain essential fatty acids that keep the nervous system in check.
- Oatmeal, whose fiber helps keep the arteries of the heart and brain clear. Top a bowlful with slivered almonds and a drizzle of honey, or throw a handful of raw oats into a smoothie.
- Organic apples and plums, which contain quercetin, an antioxidant that may fight mental decline.
- Peanut butter, whose abundance of vitamin E protects nervous membranes.
- Berries — the more intense the color, the more nutrients they have, especially high levels of antioxidants. The seeds contain omega-3s.
- Beans, which contain protein, fiber, omega-3s, vitamins, and minerals, especially iron, which is essential for normal neurological function. Mash them for burritos, throw some in a soup, or sprinkle them onto a salad and add salsa.
- Colorful veggies for fiber and vitamins. Try roasting them or adding them to a kebob for grilling.
- Lean beef, which contains iron, among other nutrients. Lean beef provides one of the best-absorbed sources of iron, and just 1 ounce a day helps the body better absorb iron from other sources. It also contains zinc, which helps maintain memory.
It’s crucial to proper brain development and function to get quality sleep. Without it, you can’t learn, create new memories, or concentrate very well. Recent research also suggests that your brain is very much awake while you’re sleeping — that is, it’s on housekeeping duty in the form of removing toxins from itself. (11) The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 3 to 5 should sleep 10 to 13 hours a night, ages 6 to 12 should sleep 9 to 12 hours, and ages 13 to 18 should get 8 to 10 hours of sleep for improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, and physical health. (12)
3. Physical Activity
Numerous experts and studies say that 60 minutes a day of physical exercise helps kids’ cardiovascular health and brain growth. In physically fit kids, the hippocampus, the area of the brain with a major role in learning and memory, has more volume. This translates to improved performance on spatial and memorization tasks. (13, 14, 15) Having trouble carving out 60 minutes for your kids to exercise or getting them to exercise for that long? Try breaking up the hour into 15- or 30-minute sessions. You could also make a family or neighborhood game out of it, like freeze tag, lawn Twister, a water-balloon fight, or a spontaneous dance party!
If you’re dancing, there’s got to be music. Research shows that music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness, and memory. One Johns Hopkins University otolaryngologist notes that “music is structural, mathematical, and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.” (16) So embrace the music your kids like and introduce them to a few of your favorite tunes.
Got a budding musician in the family? Definitely encourage the growth of that skill. As it turns out, playing music can do even more than listening to it. Music actually changes the brain more profoundly than any other intellectual, creative, or physical endeavor. This is because playing an instrument engages nearly every area of both hemispheres of the brain at once. The left hemisphere is in charge of linguistics and math, and the right governs novelty and creativity. Regular practice strengthens those areas, and the brain applies that strength to other endeavors. Also, playing music increases the volume and activity in the corpus callosum — the bridge between the two hemispheres. This means that messages are conveyed between each part more quickly, leading to more effective and creative problem solving. Musicians also have highly developed executive and memory functions, including memory creation, recall, and categorizing. (17)
5. Board Games, Card Games, and Jigsaw Puzzles
Playing board and card games can provide hours of fun family and friend time as you laugh, strategize, and bond, but did you know that game playing can literally help the frontal lobes of kids’ brains develop? The frontal lobes are responsible for executive functions — planning, problem solving, communicating, etc. Board and card games require kids to use and hone these functions, and they boost language skills and focus with the added bonuses of teaching sportsmanship and teamwork. (18) Puzzles are great for frontal lobe development as well, as kids must concentrate and apply logic. (19) For kids who can read, try giving them crossword and word search puzzles for an added boost to their language aptitude. (20)
6. Video Games/Limited Screen Time
These days, even very young children have phones, tablets, and video games systems at their fingertips. Part of the problem with this ready access to electronics is children playing video games, which are not always educational. The Mayo Clinic advises that passive screen time, if not limited to about an hour a day, can lead to obesity, irregular sleep schedules, behavioral problems, loss of social skills, and violence. However, digital literacy is vital in our world, and that will likely never change. Where do we draw the line? This will vary from family to family, but being involved with kids during their screen time and teaching them proper behaviors is an important step. (21)
However, brain-development wise, there’s a payoff: video games strengthen spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception, and the ability to think about objects in three dimensions. This is particularly true for those who play role-playing games, and these benefits do not happen with other forms of technology, such as computers or cellphones. In addition, even simple games like Angry Birds can improve players’ moods, promote relaxation, and ward off anxiety. (22)
So, how do we strike a balance between the pitfalls of video games and the benefits? One pediatrician says that even though video games have their place, they should occupy less time than what kids need to devote to exercising, socializing, studying, and sleeping. Parent, guardians, and caretakers need to watch for these signs of video game abuse (23):
- Falling grades
- Not sleeping enough or feelings of fatigue
- Free time used almost exclusively for playing video games
- Irritability when not playing video games
- Neglect of hygiene
- Disinterest in other activities
- Increased anxiety
Another doctor contends that digital play is an important component of life for 21st-century kids and that they should have unlimited access to curated educational content; for example, Minecraft is good for boosting math skills. He suggests that extra time playing video games can be a reward for completing tasks like chores, homework, or other activities of the parents’ choice. (24)
7. Mindful Breathing
New research shows that mindful breathing is an effective natural brain booster. It directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline, which is released when we are challenged, curious, focused, or emotionally stimulated. If produced at the right levels, noradrenaline helps the brain grow new connections, improving overall brain health. (25)
To get your kids to enjoy and use calming breathing techniques, ditch ideas about mantras or emptying their minds. Go with something they can relate to, and then use that imagery to teach them the technique and also to recognize how it helps them. Here are some ideas (26):
- The flower breath: Imagine smelling a flower. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- The snake breath: Inhale slowly through the nose and breathe out through the mouth with a long, slow hissing sound.
- Blow out the candle: Imagine a birthday candle. Take in a deep breath through the nose and then exhale through the mouth to blow out the candle.
- The bunny breath: Take three quick sniffs through the nose and then let out one long exhale through the nose. (As your bunny starts to get the hang of it, have him or her focus on making the exhale slower and slower.)
8. Pretend Play/Role Playing
Remember when you were a kid and used a paper towel tube for a spyglass or a wrapping paper tube for a sword? Ever made a cardboard box into a fort or spaceship or a towel into a cape? As natural as such pretend play is for kids, it turns out that it is vital for helping kids make sense of their world. As kids invent plots, plan and carry out events, solve problems for their real and imaginary friends, process information, and predict the things that will happen next, their brains are honing lifelong skills. These include language development, concentration, problem-solving abilities, logical thinking, creativity, comprehension, and social skills. (27)
Without a doubt, reading is a crucial skill. Like pretend play, reading develops kids’ imaginations, problem-solving abilities, and language comprehension — basically all of the executive functions. When reading to kids or letting them read to you, it’s important to not be rushed and to allow for conversation. Make it fun by doing voices or making silly gestures as the characters speak; you can also point out positive connections between characters or actions and your child. It’s never too early to start! Even the very youngest babies benefit from books that have simple but bold or bright images with lots of contrast. (28)
Cooking good food is about feeding the body, yes, but it can also feed the mind. Reading and carrying out a recipe develops math skills through counting and measuring ingredients. It develops basic chemistry knowledge as kids learn that food changes with temperature and basic science knowledge as kids learn how food helps their bodies. Cooking also teaches new vocabulary. Following a recipe from start to finish helps build the skills for planning and completing projects. Cooking, then, is another way to develop many of the brain’s executive functions. (29)
11. Good Quality Water
Not only is the brain 73% water, but water acts as a shock absorber for the brain and spinal cord. (3) In addition, water is present in every cell and acts as a building material; it also transports nutrients to cells and removes waste from them. (30) Water has no calories or sugar, and drinking the proper amount daily helps the brain carry out its many tasks more efficiently. Water is an essential nutrient and the best natural brain booster. But how much water do kids need per day? Here is a breakdown by age (31):
- Toddlers: 2 to 4 cups
- 4 to 8 year olds: 5 cups
- 9 to 13 year olds: 7 to 8 cups
- 14 and up: 8 to 11 cups
If your kids play sports or just play hard, they will need more than these recommended amounts. Try to get them to take a break from playing and down a few big gulps. If plain water isn’t your child’s cup of tea, power it up in a healthy way with cucumber, mint, berries, ginger, or cherries. (31)
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