October 22nd, 2020

U of L program offers families stimulating activities in parks


By Jensen, Randy on May 16, 2020.

Greg Bobinec

Lethbridge Herald

gbobinec@lethbridgeherald.com

The University of Lethbridge Building Brains Together program has launched an initiative around the city to help offer play activities for local families throughout parks with their inspirational posters.

The posters, placed by U of L neuroscientist Robbin Gibb and Claudia Gonzalez and the Building Brains Together group are designed for families to engage their children with simple activities as they make their way around Henderson and Nicholas Sheran parks.

“The Walk and Play signs went up after the playgrounds closed due to COVID-19,” says Gibb. “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 posters.”

The activities are simple to follow and include games such as walk bingo cars (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 are also obstacle courses where kids run around bench or jump on pathway cracks. All the activities are informed by years of basic neuroscience research.

“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 Future 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 well-being; social competence; emotional maturing; 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. “This is unacceptable, so members of the Early Childhood Coalition decided to do something about it.”

The group became 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 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gibb and her group have found new ways to keep that development going.

“We are also contributing activities to families receiving food hampers, we’re really trying to imagine how we can help in this interesting and challenging time,” says Gibb. “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 buildingbrains.ca website and are working on adding games for six- to eight-year-olds as well.”

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