OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

The Brain Architecture Game

The Brain Architecture Game is a dynamic and hands-on game that engages policymakers, community leaders, parents and caregivers in understanding the complex science of early brain and biological development – what promotes it, what derails it, with what consequences for society.

Photo of Jessica Mason
2 10

Written by

“You should make this game available to everyone. It teaches all the important things about how life affects children. I knew many events were bad for children but before this morning I never knew how they had bad effects.”  — Public health worker from Africa.

Children who experience significant adversity and socioeconomic disadvantage early in life are at high risk to face persistent challenges in learning, behavior and health throughout their lives. Rapid advances in scientific knowledge about how early development happens point to the critically important role of adult caregivers to provide a safe and stimulating environment for young children. This knowledge base offers a tremendous opportunity to help parents and caregivers understand the great potential of the earliest years of life and how early experience influences learning, behavior and health across the lifespan.
In the Brain Architecture Game, participants build brain structures based on foundational principles of neuroscience. Groups compete to build the strongest, most viable “brains” using simple materials, such as pipe cleaners, straws and weights. Brain builders must respond to the kinds of experiences that affect brain development, both positively and negatively—from responsive interaction with caregivers to maltreatment and poverty. Some brains will collapse under the weight of adversity; others reflect weaknesses from a series of adverse situations; others emerge strong and tall. 
“It wasn’t a fair game,” said one legislator after watching his brain collapse.  “I got a lot of unlucky cards.”   “Isn’t that the way it happens in real life?” replied the game facilitator.
While the game has been designed for use with a predominantly developed-world audience, with the appropriate research-based cultural translation it has great potential to be adapted for use in low-income communities in the developing world. The innovation of adapting the Brain Architecture game as a dynamic and portable content module for use in low-income communities in the developing world lies in: (1) offering a new and engaging l ow-cost way of presenting rigorous scientific information about early development, (2) creating a catalytic moment of understanding that increases players’ receptivity to child health and development programming and potentially magnifies its impact, and (3) leveraging existing delivery channels (such as community health workers, women’s groups, microfinance clubs, etc) to cost-effectively test the game for its ability to connect with their target audiences in new ways.
How it's played:

Inspiration for the game came from Tinkertoy, the classic children’s building set, in which players have the freedom to choose the manner in which they wish to build structures, and from the Jenga tower-building game, in which players build a tall structure, but weak points in the structure may cause its future collapse. Our Brain Architecture Game is also an expression of “free form” and employs the core mechanic of “building,” which reinforces the key concept in brain development of building strong foundations.
To play, a group of players build a “brain structure,” based on a deck of “life experience” cards that instruct them to use strong or weak materials (straws and pipe cleaners). The cards encompass a wide range of experiences that children may be exposed to. Based on the type of event on each card, the player receives different construction material to be used in building their brain structure. The game has two phases: early development and testing resilience.  In the early development phase, players try to build brain architecture as tall and sturdy as possible.  In the testing resilience phase, players gauge the strength of their brain structure. The card deck is organized to build understanding of basic neuroscience concepts of what kinds of experiences support—or disrupt—early brain development.
Developed in partnership between the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and the Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center at the University of Southern California, the Brain Architecture game is ready to move from a prototype to a fully developed physical game that can be produced professionally for broader dissemination. In addition to USC and Harvard, the FrameWorks Institute and members of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child are partnering on this next stage of game development Over the course of three years, the game has been play-tested from Alberta, Canada, to Topeka, KS, to the US Virgin Islands, in state legislatures and science museums, with graduate classes and at CEO conferences. The concepts communicated by the game have been shown to effectively facilitate public understanding of the effects of early experiences on child outcomes through a decade of qualitative and quantitative communications research conducted by FrameWorks and the Council, bringing ordinary people more in tune with the scientific consensus on how early child development “happens” and what can be done to support it.

Who will benefit from this idea and where are they located?

The target beneficiaries are parents and other adult caregivers and service providers who work with young children in low-income communities around the globe, particularly those already involved in small group community-based health and development interventions (like parent circles and micro-lending groups). To lay the foundation for developing a version of the Brain Architecture Game that could be used in low-income settings, we propose to first adapt the game for use with children and families experiencing adversity in Brazil, where we have both very strong existing partnerships and early-stage communications research on how best to communicate the science of early development to the public. The game would be incorporated into existing development programming, e.g., in-home visiting programs and community groups.

How could you test this idea in a quick and low-cost way right now?

Partnering initially with one or two human services organizations (yet to be identified) in Brazil, the game’s developers would lead a process of prototype adaptation and usability testing. After initial translation of the experience cards, the organizations’ staff will play the game with parents, caregivers, and home visitors in the selected community. The sessions will include a facilitated discussion to elicit what works well, what needs adaptation, and other ways that the game might be improved for use with this particular population/in this particular setting. A second round of focus groups will allow us to play the game with the adaptations, and the game’s effectiveness can be assessed by the use of simple pre- and post-tests of child-development knowledge. Once evaluated and finalized, the game would be disseminated cost-effectively through existing channels by training the partner organizations’ staff who already work directly with parents and caregivers in the selected community. We could then test the effectiveness of the addition of the game by comparing the knowledge and behaviors of parents within the program who have the opportunity to play the game and those who do not.

What kind of help would you need to make your idea real?

In addition to the funds needed to support this project, we need to identify a strong partner in Brazil with both the interest and the capacity to test the game on the ground (translation, adaptation, and usability testing). While we have a strong existing network in Brazil, if the Amplify community could help identify an organization that might like to conduct usability testing and focus groups on the ground, that would be a great starting point. On a conceptual level, it would also be helpful to have community input on how we could use the game as a catalyst for behavior change -- to change the quality of interactions between caregivers and young children -- beyond simply increasing caregivers’ sensitivity to existing messages about child health and development.

Is this an idea that you or your organization would like to take forward?

  • Yes. I am looking for partners that might be interested in taking this idea forward in their communities.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Afzal Habib

Jessica, this is a really awesome method to engage parents in their children's growth & development and to provide practical, hands-on experience around the importance of the first five years!

Parental education & engagement is a key goal we have at Kidogo... and an area that has not been the easiest to overcome for us. Here are a few ideas based on our work in the informal settlements around Nairobi, Kenya:

(1) The importance of the facilitator: It seems that the game itself is pretty simple with regards to materials and cards, but that the key to the effective implementation is the facilitators. Beyond adapting the language on the cards, I think it will be CRITICAL to develop a model for "training-the-trainers" (facilitators) to implement the game more widely within their own communities.

(2) The use of branding: We've realized at Kidogo that our branding is key to getting the attention of parents... perhaps it would be cool to build off of the idea of board games, pulling all the materials required to play the game into a cool "kit" with bright branding, and a handle for CHWs to carry around.

(3) Leveraging existing delivery mechanisms: While CHWs & women's groups may be one channel that could be used... you can also engage parents where their children spend a lot of time - at daycare centres, pre-schools, or children's wards in hospitals.

As an example, we often host "parent's days" at our Kidogo centres on Saturdays when the centre is closed and would be thrilled to have a trainer come and pilot this program with our parents / customers here in Nairobi... in fact, you probably wouldn't even have to change the language of the cards given that most parents have excellent english comprehension. Low cost pilot?

Photo of Jessica Mason

Hi Afzal,

Thanks for the feedback and for chiming in with your good ideas. I'm 100% with you that a solid train-the-trainer model for facilitators would be critical. I think this is something we would be wanting to think more in depth about after prototyping/mini trials, but it definitely makes sense to begin thinking about it now. Have you had any noteworthy experience with train the trainer yet for Kidogo?

Your point about branding is really interesting. The game may go into proper production here in the U.S. and with that would obviously come a full branding effort. That said, I think the branding we would want to do would be really different for low-income, developing world contexts, so we'd need to think about that really carefully. I love the idea of the kit and it being something attention-grabbing and recognized by the community as the CHWs carry it around!

I also think you're spot on with the idea that the game could be played in many more places than we've initially listed. We'd like to focus on CHWs at least initially since its such an extensive and generally effective delivery mechanism, but it would certainly also be pretty fascinating if the train-the-trainer model was robust enough that day care centers and schools could lead sessions of the game themselves for parents and community members, like during your parents' days.

The strength of a pilot in Brazil is that we have key communications research that helps us understand how the Brazilian public understands child development and what are the most effective ways to communicate about development with them (i.e. how to frame the messaging of the game). We don't have that research in Kenya, but I wonder if a low-cost pilot in Kenya could be interesting and informative regardless? Is this something you would want to pursue?