How do you build a tower with pipe cleaners and drinking straws?
From the bottom up. Carefully.
Exactly the way a brain is developed.
Judy Cameron, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, told participants at the Canadian Association of Family Resource Programs conference in Hamilton last month that brains are built over time and that early life stress impacts lifelong health.
Some stress is positive – getting married, for example, or having a baby. Other stress is negative, but tolerable when there are supports in place – the death of a loved one or losing your job. Negative stress for which you have no buffers becomes toxic stress; sources of toxic stress for infants include neglect, maltreatment, postpartum depression and parental substance abuse.
Cameron then led participants in what she has called the “brain architecture game”, a game that is still in the developmental stages but will soon be available for everyone.
The object of the game is to build a tower (brain) using pipe cleaners (neurons) and supports (drinking straws). Tallest structure standing at the end of the game is the winner.
If your tower collapses at any point, you are out of the game.
We started with what I can only call a kind of genetic lottery. You throw the die to come up with the number of pipe cleaners that will form the foundation for your brain tower. Six is maximum; our table rolled four. You fasten the pipe cleaners together, remembering that once connected, the pipe cleaners cannot be taken apart later.
Another throw determines the number of supports the baby will have – strong parent-child attachment, for example, extended family nearby, economic stability.
Our table threw a one which entitled us to one straw.
By inserting a pipe cleaner inside a straw, you made it stronger. The brain you were building had more stability.
Now that our foundation was in place, we began the task of building upwards. For each year of the child’s life, the team draws three cards. In year one of our child’s life, the cards we drew were ‘inherited disease’, ‘childhood illness’ and ‘malnutrition.’ Toxic stresses, each and every one of them.
For years one through five, each positive stress card drawn gives you a straw to use for additional support. Each toxic stress card gives you a pipe cleaner.
When you get to ages six through eight, you can no longer earn straws. Only pipe cleaners. And each toxic stressor earns you a small weight to add to the structure.
During the course of the game, our child experienced sixteen toxic stresses, nine tolerable stresses and eight positive.
Besides the inherited health conditions and poor nutrition, we suffered through the town’s destruction in an earthquake, a parent who lost a job, exposure to chemical poisons, conflicts with peers, an unsafe home, an awful teacher, drug exposure, domestic violence and bullying at school. On the positive side, we had a language-rich environment, good friends in the community, a clean and safe playground and popularity in school.
Our brain structure was a bit ragtag but it did not collapse. It stood tall and we were proud of ourselves.
Did we learn something? You bet.
We learned how important those first years are in the development of a child’s brain, how connections made cannot be unmade and how supports can make toxic stress into tolerable stress with positive outcomes for the child’s future.
Playing the game also reinforced something we already knew. Still we welcomed the reminder.
Play IS learning.