When it comes to educating children, we seem to be stuck with what I call the “ice cream Sunday” model. That is, we focus on the cerebral cortex as if this was all there is to thinking. Imagine if all there was to desert is the over processed cherry on the top, ugh.
Our fixation on stuffing more facts and learning into the brain ignores how we really think. It’s as if the only thing that counts on a computer is the microprocessor, when in fact, the display, mouse, memory, keyboard, and most fundamentally the connection to the internet is what turns a lump of silicone into a thinking machine.
I like the Sunday meme, let’s go with that. If we think of the cerebral cortex as the cherry, what lays below is the limbic system, or so-called “lizard brain” because it is so old, which controls most of our emotional life. For the for first few years babies are almost entirely controlled by this area of the brain. A lot of the function of this organ is to regulate all of the various chemicals that modulate and control emotion. In our Sunday meme, all that whipped cream.
Most of the information processing is conducted by neurons, also known as nerve cells. These are electrically excitable cells that receive, process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. Surprise! Neurons are not just located in the head. They are also found in the heart. If you’d like a deep dive on this subject and learn about the parasympathetic nervous system, there is a great film, Of Hearts and Minds, that goes into the science in great detail.
But wait there’s more! How about the old saying “Go with your gut”?
Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut” is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think. Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). And it’s not so little. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract.
OK, that’s it, right? Wrong. There is a whole other system you probably know very little about. You see, every muscle, every organ in your body is held in what is, in essence, a bag. These bags are made up of collagen and are called fascia. It is said that skin is our largest organ, but the facia is many times larger, and yes, in a way it thinks. Facia contains neurons and participates in the chemical soup that is part of the whole process.
So back to the Sunday. What we are talking about is the mind. That mysterious entity that has confounded philosophers from time immemorial. We literally think with our whole Sunday of body parts.
As impressive as all this is, what does it have to do with play?
Children spend the bulk of their first six years learning through play. Play is a whole-body curriculum and does a truly astonishing job of turning a baby into a functioning human. And then just when the kids are getting ready to take flight, we send them off to school where 99% of the curriculum is about only one part of the brain.
Just think about that. No wait, feel about that, use your whole body-mind and ask yourself, “Is there a better way?”