Welcome to the club

Ella Rhodes reports on our efforts to crowdsource practical ideas for an after-school psychology club for primary school children.

A group of psychologists in Bath have been invited to run an after-school psychology club for primary-age children. Dr Susanna Martin, a postdoctoral researcher at the university’s CREATE Lab, was invited by a local primary to run psychology activities over nine weeks with Year 5 and 6 pupils. The club will conclude with the children taking part in the university’s ‘Bath Taps into Science’ showcase in March, allowing them to teach others what they have learnt. Eleanna Skoulikari, a PhD student who is organising the sessions, said: ‘There’s no better way to learn than having fun, and we aim to introduce psychology and science to the pupils by engaging them in fun activities and simple research projects.’

Susanna reached out to us on Twitter (@psychmag) for suggestions, and so we asked our audience for practical demonstrations and activities. We hope to inspire other clubs like these, to teach younger minds about our fascinating field.

Getting started
Kelly Auty, the British Psychological Society’s Psychology Education Policy Advisor, said psychology demonstrations for younger children could be particularly challenging. ‘Things to bear in mind when preparing hands-on activities for a primary school age range include ethics; think carefully about what you’re asking the children to do. Demonstrations, rather than experiments, are a good way of dealing with this, but you still need to bear ethical considerations, such as consent, in mind. You may also want to consider the kinds of questions you might get from the children and how you would handle them. Young people have a range of experiences which may touch on the demonstrations you are running.’

Auty also enforced the idea that the science behind demonstrations shouldn’t be ignored and added: ‘Telling children that “something happens in your brain and ‘voila’ the psychological phenomenon happens” is tempting, but think about how you can convey the mechanisms behind the phenomenon and how to pitch it for young people. For some a broad brush will be enough, but there will always be one or two who want to know exactly how it works. Don’t shy away from complex scientific explanations, but think about how to make this accessible before you get asked the difficult question! And remember that some people might not experience the phenomena you are demonstrating… just try to ensure you can explain why this might be.’

Demonstration and activity ideas
We spoke to a number of psychologists and experts in public engagement for their thoughts and ideas on the best activities for younger children, to help them think about thoughts and learn about their brain and behaviour.

Dr Eilidh Cage, Teaching Fellow at Royal Holloway University of London, has run sessions with younger children and suggested getting children to build-a-neuron using pipe cleaners, googly eyes, dried pasta and polystyrene balls. Cage said: ‘Once the neuron has been made, you can describe its different parts – for example the pasta is the myelin – and how neurons work. It can be fun to get everyone to put their neurons together to show how neurons communicate.’

Dr Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster) suggested another anatomical activity for children. ‘I’ve used a model of the brain and got the children to feel the weight of it and see the size – it was life size and the correct weight – they were totally fascinated.’

A false memory test was the suggestion from Dr David Turk (University of Bristol), who runs psychology classes for younger children. ‘Children are asked to memorise a list of words related to a certain context, such as sleep; e.g. dream, pillow, bed, etc. Then a second list is read to the children and includes sleep-related words not included on the first list. They will most likely say they heard the word ‘sleep’ even though this was absent. This is a great demonstration of how brains use context clues to fill in the gaps of knowledge and even produce false memories.’

Professor Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire and star of YouTube channel Quirkology) suggested a demonstration of the importance of critical thinking through dowsing: He said: ‘Get kids to hold a pendulum over a glass or water and it spins. Then have six upturned buckets and hide the glass under one of them. Suddenly they can’t find the water. Turns into a nice piece of critical thinking and illustrates video motor action.’

Dr Alan Gow (Heriot-Watt University) said he used various demonstrations with younger children, including balloons to show brain growth and eventual atrophy (by inflating and deflating the balloon to represent size over the lifespan). He added: ‘The other thing I often use is different coloured wool to explore white matter connections, which is something the public are generally less aware of, using different strands to get people connected up and in the process talk about how the wires allow different areas to communicate, and also how those connections develop and change over time. It also involves a lot of throwing of balls wool around, which people of all ages seem to enjoy!’

Drawing on the much-loved series of children’s books, Dr Elisabeth Blagrove (University of Warwick) suggested Where’s Wally: ‘The activity here is very simple – finding Wally in amongst Martin Handford’s wonderfully-detailed scenes. But it’s where this leads that is the exciting thing for anyone keen to get children thinking about everyday psychological processes. We get the chance to talk about visual search; how we look for things in our environment and what aspects of our visual world influence this process, for example what is our search target? What things compete for our attention and why? Most importantly, this starts to give children insight into the fact that brains are capable of amazing things, that most of the time, we don’t even notice!’

One of our most-suggested demonstrations was the classic experiment devised by Professors Dan Simons (University of Illinois) and Chris Chabris (Union College). Children watch a video (tinyurl.com/8fuake8) which shows two groups of people passing balls between them – they are asked to count the number of passes the team in white make. Without giving the game away, this is a valuable demonstration of change blindness and selective attention. Professor Simons said: ‘I’ve also used the demo with groups of kids as young as eight and it seems to work fine with them.’

Dr Christian Jarrett, editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, suggests a body illusion such as the ‘rubber arm’. ‘It gives people the sensation that a fake arm is their own by hiding their real hand under a table, placing a rubber one (or even an inflated rubber glove) in front of them on the table top, and stroking/tapping both in the same way at the same time in synchrony. For some, they can see it’s a rubber arm, they know the trick that’s coming, but they just can’t stop the strange sensation taking hold. Kids love things that are weird or creepy, so I think this would be a winner. The illusion can be used to prompt all sorts of discussions about the way the brain represents the body, and how what we perceive to be our body is not as stable as we often think. In fact recent variations of the illusion even show that it’s possible to create in people the sensation of having three arms!’

Dr Josh Davis (University of Greenwich) has carried out face recognition tests with children as young as 10, with parental permission. Some score exceptionally highly. Face recognition ability is extremely important socially for humans of all ages, and children are likely to be very interested that some of us are better than others at this. It would be a simple activity to construct a test in which photos of the children in the class are mixed with others to demonstrate the difference between familiar and unfamiliar people, and to cut out the external features (e.g. hairstyle) to show that it is still easy to recognise friends without hair, but not so easy with those we do not know.’

Asked to do a science day with four- and five-year-olds, Paul Gardner (Teaching Fellow, University of St Andrews) turned to colour opponent theory. ‘It just so happened that their topic was penguins. I discovered that penguins can only see the blue green end of the spectrum, so I tried to weave a story around this. It wasn’t ideal but we took pictures of the Scottish saltire, coloured in the cross black and the triangle parts yellow. The children stare at the image for 30 seconds and then at a blank sheet of paper and you get colour reversal, the cross in white and the rest in blue. You can do something similar with the Union Jack or whatever. Many of the children will have experienced having seen a bright light or flash from a camera and then subsequently a black spot that fades.’

'Dark adaptation' was the suggestion from Dr Tom Stafford (University of Sheffield). 'Turn of the lights and notice and your vision slowly gets used to the dark. This shows how your perception actively adjusts to allow you to cope in different circumstances, as well as illustration adaptation (a ubiquitous sensory phenomena). For bonus points, keep one eye closed and turn on the lights briefly. When you turn it off, you have one dark adapted eye, with which you can see in the dark, and one which is night blind - showing that adaptation happen mostly in the eyes, rather than higher up the cortical visual processing stream.'

Many of these suggestions are quite ‘perception’ based… what about something more social? Professor Bruce Hood (University of Bristol) says: ‘Social is hard because there are not that many reliable phenomena, but how about contagious yawning or giggling? You can get free apps that produce laughter, or they can try this with a pencil in the mouth which should increase feelings of mirth for laughter tracks when the pencil is gripped sideways in the teeth to force a grin as opposed to held like a straw in the lips to create a pout. I used this in the Christmas Lectures: all those demos are free at thebrainbank.org.uk and they can be used for children of different ages including primary level.’ Professor Hood also runs speakezee.org, a site bringing speakers and audiences together, and he tells us that many experts would be willing to come into schools.

Asked for a health psychology perspective, Chair of that Society Division Professor Karen Rodham (Staffordshire University) thought it would be fun for the children to try the cold pressor test (obviously with all ethical and health and safety issues addressed). ‘They could experiment to find out whether focusing on the experience or using different kinds of distraction techniques had an impact on how long they could keep their hands in the cold water. This could lead to a discussion about coping and the children could learn how their ability to tolerate uncomfortable experiences can be affected by the different coping strategies they use.’

Dr Jamie Barker, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology, suggests using the ‘Beat the Bleep’ game to illustrate the effect of pressure and audience effects on skilled performance. ‘Children (of all ages) guide a metal hoop from one end of a buzzwire course to the other, without touching the wire. If they touch it a buzzer goes off and a lights flashes and they have to go back to the start of the course! Splitting children into teams and competing against each other helps to increase pressure. Typical responses from participants are disrupted motor performance (i.e. hand shaking), poor emotional control (i.e. frustration), enhanced or decreased focus, and approach or avoidance behaviour(s).’

Dr Roxanne Gervais, Chair of the Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology, suggested having the children lead each other while blindfolded. ‘Assign the group into two or three smaller groups, move them to a wide, safe area and provide all of the children in each group with blindfolds except for one. That leader has to give clear instructions to the rest of the group: where they have to walk and any obstacles they have to be aware of. These types of activities with get children to communicate better with others, be stronger leaders, become more self-aware and very importantly, aware of the needs of others.’

Over to you!
When we shared our list with Dr Martin, she said: ‘there are some interesting suggestions that I think we will be incorporating, especially the rubber arm experiment and neurons from pipe cleaners! For others who want to get involved, I’d suggest talking either to schools they have connections with, or contacting their university’s public engagement/widening participation units. They often have lists of schools who like to engage with universities. A good place to get experience working with children is taking part in local science fairs or offering to give a talk to a local Cub Scout/Brownie group, as these can be one-off events.’ 

Do you have other ideas to add to the list? Comment below, e-mail us at [email protected] or tweet @psychmag.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber


If it's not already been mentioned, optical illusions and 3D glasses seems like an obvious choice to get children thinking about how we perceive things.