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University of Iowa News Release


Sept. 2, 2011

Image: These scans illustrate changes in the brain between ages 5 and 20. The bluer the image, the more mature that part of the cortex is (i.e., connectivity patterns are more refined). Credit: Gogtay et. Al. (2004). PNAS, 101, 8174-8179.

UI Delta Center designs 'Brains Under Construction' exhibit for The Iowa Children's Museum

Research shows that imaginative, unstructured play--think pretending a cardboard box is a castle, or using a banana as a telephone--helps children's brains develop. But how exactly does that happen?

The University of Iowa Delta Center and The Iowa Children's Museum (ICM) teamed up to create a new exhibit that explains how play helps children learn and grow.

"Brains Under Construction" will run Sept. 11-24, on the second floor of the museum in Coral Ridge Mall. Admission to the ICM will be free on Sunday, Sept. 11, when the exhibit debuts as part of the museum's "One Community, Many Stories" event, a celebration of culture on the anniversary of 9/11.

"Parents want to raise their kids the best possible way. They do all they can to help their children become happy, healthy and successful adults, so we know they'll be eager to understand how play can help kids learn." said Deb Dunkhase, executive director of the museum. "We also hope to reinforce the value of open-ended free play, which sometimes gets lost in today's highly scheduled world."

The Delta Center is devoted to research on learning and development. A group of UI scholars from the center received funding from the National Science Foundation to study how flexible thinking emerges throughout childhood. The scientists used support from the grant and the UI Obermann Center for Advanced Studies to create the exhibit and share their insights with the community.

The exhibit consists of four areas, with the overarching theme "building the brain through the power of play." A path through the exhibit tells the story of how children's thinking develops--and which parts of the brain are involved--as they learn tasks like crawling, talking, behavior control and decision-making.

The first station reveals the thinking involved with games, using a computerized version of the classic "shell game." Three coconut shells are placed on a table, with a ball underneath one of the shells. The shells are shuffled around, and the player must try to keep track of the ball.

"When a child plays this kind of game, the brain is hard at work," said Delta Center Director John Spencer, professor of psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "We'll illustrate that with images showing which parts of the brain are in play, and how more of the brain becomes involved as the game becomes more challenging. We also note the limitations of short-term memory, as well as how the frontal cortex helps develop strategies to overcome those limits as children practice the game."

Creativity is the focus of the second station. Kids will help the confused "Delta Center Engineers" imagine how various colorful objects (designed by UI graduate students in studio arts) could be used as toys. This part of the exhibit is based on research indicating that pretend play helps young children learn language more readily.

Next, at a dance tent called "Club Delta," kids will see how the brain benefits from physical activity. Club Delta will feature music, a light show, and Wii dance party video games, which keep kids moving by teaching choreography with popular songs and characters. Aerobic activity increases blood flow to children's developing brains, Spencer said. There's also evidence that it helps to combat dementia in the elderly by promoting the growth of neurons in the brain's memory center, the hippocampus.

The last center will feature common household objects, like pots and pans or dress-up clothes, to encourage families to play creatively with items they already have around the house.

"The message is that you don't need to spend money on expensive toys to play and learn," Spencer said. "You just need to let your imagination carry you forward."

Once "Brains Under Construction" concludes at the ICM, organizers intend to make it a traveling exhibit for use at other museums, recreation centers and libraries. Dunkhase also plans to integrate concepts from the exhibit into other displays at the museum.

"Our goal is to inspire every child to imagine, create, discover and explore," she said. "We have 140,000 people come through the museum each year, and I think we can do more to educate families about the ways play positively impacts the developing brain. It's a great gift for the Delta Center to share that expertise with us."

Admission to the ICM is $7 for adults and children, $6 for seniors, or free with a membership. The museum's hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

"One Community, Many Stories" runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11. The "Day of Understanding" enables families to learn about the personal stories of people in our community as they enjoy live entertainment, sample foods and participate in arts, crafts and other fun activities.

Along with the grand opening of "Brains Under Construction," the event features a sneak peek of the Coralville Performing Arts Center's "Hairspray" performance at 11:30 a.m.; storytelling by American Girl historical character, Kirsten; Irish and Argentine folk dancing; arts and crafts from around the world, including making "peace sticks;" and a kick-off of the Family Literacy Interactive Program.

To learn more about the Iowa Children's Museum, visit

For more information on the Delta Center, visit

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Deb Dunkhase, Iowa Children's Museum, 319-625-6255, ext. 210,; Tricia Zebrowski, Delta Center, 319-335-8735,; John Spencer, Delta Center, 319-321-8397,; Nicole Riehl, University News Services, 319-384-0070,