How can we teach children about the brain? Using stories – scientific validation

How can we teach children about the brain? Our study showed that children respond well to stories. Skeptical? We conducted an experiment and you are welcome to replicate our study. Here is how we did.


Reaching the audience and children: a challenge

It is important for scientists to tell non-scientists about their work, but it can also be challenging. When scientists try to explain a complex study, there are all kinds of choices to be made about how to simply tell people who are not experts without forgetting important details (or limitations).

For example, if we want to explain science to children, a story can be told about strong neurons (and their helpful friendly cleaning cells) to make them involved and connected to this new information, helping them to remember it. But this can also create an image of a body full of cells that look like little people, which is of course cute but not very accurate.


Are stories just for fun or can they also be educational?

Scientists hope that by telling these kinds of stories that take place in and around the brain, information will also reach the young readers. It’s challenging to keep the number of confusing details to a minimum while still putting a lot of accurate neuroscience knowledge into these stories.

An example of such a story is “Mimi de microglia”, a story available through the Donders teaching kit . Microglia are very useful “help” cells in the brain. In this story, Mimi, one of the microglia, goes on a tour of the brain. She is looking for the “boss” of the brain and tries to follow messages back and forth from one neuron to the next in order to arrive at the first messenger, which of course can only be the boss of the brain, right ? I will not reveal it further, but read the story (see below). Besides being a funny story, it also contains a lot of information about the neurobiology of our brain.

Recently, the makers of this story (a group of neuroscientists I am part of, the non-profit organization Cogni’Junior) have tried to investigate how many children actually pick up from these stories. By having a class full of 8-year-olds draw what they knew about the brain before and after the story, we could investigate how much they had learned.

Examples of scientific concepts drawn by children.

If you look at the items in the drawings we can see that the children have picked up quite a lot of information. Instead of simple drawings of the brain as blocks, as they used to do, most children now used more complex drawings with circuits of neurons, brain cells and their functions.

How certain concepts changed and how often they were drawn in the pre-test, immediately after the story (post-test) and 4 days after hearing the story (test D + 4)


What was even more interesting, although the children often drew neuroglia as little people immediately after hearing the story, the results showed that this “humanizing” of the cells diminished over time. However, they still remembered the different cell types and functions, as well as immediately after hearing the story. This showed that the children were able to extract scientific knowledge from the story while also recognizing what the characters in the story were: a fun way to learn.

Let’s tell more scientific stories!



Our experiment has been published in Grand N – n°104 Novembre 2019–581123.kjsp

the article 



This experiment followed the colloquim ‘telling science, drawing science’ that we participated in:

Evaluer l’intérêt pédagogique du conte de Mimi la microglie