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More than a Game – building the best start

30 November 2015

In late November 2015 Blackpool was the venue for free activities for families and children, delivered as part of the launch of A Better Start Blackpool – £45m of Lottery funding to develop a 10-year programme to improve chances for future generations by focusing on pregnancy and the early years.

Daily activities were set around sport, arts and crafts, storytelling and the Brain Game – a new activity delivered with the support of the FrameWorks Institute in the USA and the Palix Foundation in Canada.

Chief Executive of the FrameWorks Institute, Nat Kendall-Taylor spoke to us:

Hi Nat. The Brain Game is new to our shores. Can you tell us what it is and why it was created?

Brain Architecture—The Game is an interactive and dynamic activity that allows groups of people—from

Close up of Game materials

The Brain Architecture Game

5 to 500—to deeply learn some of the foundational ideas that are emerging from the science of early childhood development. Put more simply, it’s a game that teaches people science.

The Game is the product of a collaboration of Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, The Creative Media and Behavioral Health Center at the University of Southern California, Dr. Judy Cameron at the University of Pittsburgh and the FrameWorks Institute. I realize that’s a mouthful, but a really cool thing about this game is that it has brought together the best science of development, the best science of communication and the best science of game play and design. That is quite a cast of characters and it’s really unique collaboration.

The game was created out of need. How can we engage large groups of people in science principles in a way that makes sense and will stick with them? Dr. Judy Cameron was keen to engage large numbers of people in what she and her colleagues were learning about the role of severe adversity and stress in the way that kids develop and turn out. The Game was conceived of as a way to quickly and effectively—and with fidelity to the science—get a large number of people to appreciate how development works and the role of adversity in this process. And the game that has come out of the collaboration has been very effective in doing this—in a way that sitting through a lecture (even a really great lecture) or reading a paper (even a really great paper), just can’t do. A lot of people out there who are interested in learning and translation are coming to this same realization—games drive messages home, make ideas sticky and leave a lasting impression in ways that other means of communication do not.

And how will it go about improving outcomes for young children?

FrameWorks Institute logo

FrameWorks Institute

The idea is that the game is a form of communication. It effectively takes a set of complex, abstract scientific principles and ‘passes’ them to people in the course of playing an engaging and collaborative game. As someone who studies communication, this is a very cool application of science translation! Step one in the bigger idea is that engaging people in this game drives home key science principles. Step two is that learning these principles in a deep and sticky way should lead people to bring these principles to their lives as decision-makers, parents, community members and practitioners. It’s actually really simple (I prefer ‘elegant’ to simple): use a game to teach people science principles that they can use as they go about their lives. Elegant, right?

So what will someone ‘playing the game’ have to do?

People playing the game will get to build a brain! They will get to take the experiences that children have—both positive and negative—and use them try to build a supportive structure and a solid foundation. The game allows people to see the way that experiences influence the way that children develop and how this development is either fortified or challenged by the people, resources and communities that children live with. People will need to work with the genetic hands they are dealt and with the experiences that accumulate along the way to create solid and stable Brain Architecture—a structure that can bear the weight of adversity and respond in positive ways to life and challenges.

They will need to suspend the way that they normally think of learning science—this is not a lecture disguised as a game and it’s not a scientific paper cut up into bite-sized chunks. It is a way of using the power of play and the engagement that comes from being immersed in an activity to transfer and drive home a set of ideas that people are probably not used to using in how they think about kids, families, communities, policies, practices and programs.

But I understand the game is actually quite a sophisticated tool. Can you tell us about some of the research that underpins it?

The game itself has been rigorously tested for its playability and the effects that it has on people’s

understandings of early childhood development. But at a deeper level, the language and concepts that are embedded in the game—Brain Architecture, Toxic Stress, Serve and Return and other frames—are the result of years of communications research where Frameworks’ researchers have developed and tested different frames to see what they do for people’s understanding and thinking about early childhood and development. And the developmental science that runs through the game is rock solid. It comes out of decades of careful science from field-leading researchers. The reason why the game works is that it puts together tested ideas from these levels—playability, communication and the science of development. And we know that it’s working when all of this careful work, hours of thinking and years of research fade out and people just engage in the challenge in front of them—and walk away understanding science in a way that they didn’t before they had a chance to play a challenging game. How cool is that?

Who knew that giving people a way to have fun would require so much hard, behind-the-scenes work?

I know that you are doing a lot of work to help support Blackpool Better Start, can you tell us more about it?

A Better Start cartoon

A Better Start

I was just in Blackpool a month ago giving a talk at the first big meeting of the Blackpool Better Start initiative and the event was AWESOME! There is such an amazing group of people that have come together to be part of this work and such outstanding energy and excitement around this work—it was contagious and I feel very lucky to have the chance to participate in this work. The most impressive thing to me is the deep dedication to making lives better for children and families in Blackpool—you could feel it and it was very exciting.

My job at the conference was to distil five years of work that FrameWorks has been doing in the UK, and specifically, in Blackpool, on translating the science of early childhood development. This was not an easy thing to do in less than an hour. Since beginning our work in the UK we have been looking deeply at how people think about early childhood and at how, through frames, people’s understanding can be expanded to include new ideas about what we can do to improve the lives of children, families and communities. In Blackpool this has meant a lot of interviews with people about kids, families and development, a series of ‘on-the-street’ interviews where we’ve tested new frames, and framing surveys in which we’ve looked at how hearing different frames effects the ways that people think about child development. We’ve also been working closely with a group of key communicators in Blackpool to train them on the results of this research and framing more generally. The idea is these framing ambassadors will go out and train others on how to communicate the exciting, but highly technical and abstract, science of early childhood in more accessible and applicable ways so that people can have access to and benefit from this information in how they live their lives as individuals and community members.

Thanks Nat!

You can find out how parents in Blackpool played a role in shaping the funding themselves and about Blackpool A Better Start.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 19 February 2016 4:20 am

    Hi there and thank you for featuring our game. We wanted to let you know that The Brain Architecture Game has been commercially released 🙂 You can get more information here:

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