Little messengers

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Biology In Elementary Schools is a Saint Michael's College student project from a course that ran between 2007 and 2010 and fully described in this book chapter. The student-created resources have been preserved here for posterity. Link under 'toolbox' for printer-friendly versions of the exercises. Click on handouts to print full resolution versions. Please see Wikieducator's disclaimer, our safety statement, and the Creative Commons licensing in English and in legalese.

Student worthiness

This idea has been tested and was successful.

Primary biological content area covered

  • The nervous system (and how it communicates)
  • The structure and function of a neuron


Teacher Materials

  • poster of a neuron
  • stopwatch
  • picture of a hand
  • picture of a brain
  • mousetrap
  • dominoes
  • children's literature on neurons/nervous system

Student Group Materials (See Figure 4)

  • neuron handout
  • rolling pins
  • different colored clay
  • six labeled toothpick flags (reading nucleus, cell body, dendrites, axon, myelin sheath, axon terminals; pre-made by teacher)
  • one button
  • one pipe cleaner
  • 5 pieces of ziti macaroni
  • one piece of construction paper


Figure 1: A teacher guide and notes for the activity.
Figure 2: An individual student handout for the activity. This includes a diagram of a neuron with defined parts in simple, easy to read language.
Figure 3: A Barnes student constructs and labels his neuron!
Figure 4: A student's completed neuron.

Description of activity

  • The kids will be shown a diagram of a neuron. We, the teacher(s), will point out the different parts and briefly describe what each part does. The teacher(s) will explain how a neural impulse is transmitted to the brain using the example of a hand touching a hot stove. (See Figure 1).
  • Then the kids will be given time to make their own neurons from different colored clay. Using the pre-made "flag labels," they will label the different parts-- cell body, nucleus, dendrites, axon, axon terminals, and myelin sheath. (See Figures 3 and 4). 
  • The teacher(s) will have set up an oval made from upright dominoes (with 1 foot breaks in it). At one end will be a picture of the brain and at the other end will be a picture of a hand. Starting at the picture of the hand, the kids will take turns bumping the dominoes at each break to continue the dominoes falling as fast as they can. (The falling dominoes represent a traveling neural impulse. See "Domino Activity" Video). This part of the activity is timed with a stopwatch. After the kids have watched their "impulse" travel from the hand to the brain and back the teacher(s) will discuss how long it took them to complete the activity and compare that to how fast a real neural impulse is.

Lesson plan

Opening Questions
  • What is the nervous system? What does it do?
  • What is a neuron?
  • How do neurons work?
  1. Before activity begins, make six "flag labels" for each student (using one toothpick and a small piece of white paper). The six labels should correspond with the 6 parts to be focused on: cell body, nucleus, dendrites, axon, axon terminals, and myelin sheath. Also before activity begins, set up domino apparatus described above.
  2. Discuss the function of nervous systems-- to relay messages and control body functions. Discuss the role of a neuron as a "little messenger" of the system.
  3. Show students the parts of a neuron (cell body, nucleus, dendrites, axon, axon terminals, and myelin sheath) using the large neuron poster. Explain each part's function. Show how a chemical message travels through a neuron.
  4. Hand out student materials (including individual handouts) and have students construct their own neuron model. Clay is used to make the dendrites, cell body, and axon terminals, pipe cleaner for axon, ziti for myelin sheath, and a button for the nucleus. (See Figure 4).
  5. After models are completed, ask students to stand behind one section of the oval domino apparatus.
  6. Place a picture of a brain on the tailed end of the oval and a picture of a hand on another.
  7. After snapping the mousetrap on the paper hand (a teacher task ONLY), instruct one student to hit their row of dominoes as the stopwatch starts. Other students follow suit (knocking down their own row of dominoes in the oval). Watch as they fall around the table. (See "Domino Activity" Video).
  8. Repeat step 7 if desired.
  9. Ask students: How do the dominoes represent a message traveling through neurons? If needed, explain the process being sure to incorporate the brain and hand in the answer.
  10. Clean up.

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Wrap up comments/ Discussion Questions
  • Although our domino "message" seemed to travel fast, a real neuron can fire in 5 milliseconds. That's 200 times per second!
  • One neuron in the body can be connected to as many as 1000 other neurons.
  • Your brain alone has 100 billion neurons. And you have neurons everywhere in your body!
  • What did we learn?
    • What does the nervous system do?
    • What are the "little messengers" of the nervous system? What are its parts and what do they do?
  • Ask students for an example of how the nervous system works.
    • i.e. What happens when you step on a nail with your foot?

Potential pitfalls

Dominoes could get knocked over before they're supposed to be (by students or by accident). Also, be sure that a teacher (and NOT a student) sets off the mousetrap on the hand.

Math connections

We will use a stopwatch to time how long it takes for the kids to "send the message" as fast as they can with the dominoes. Then, we will explain that in reality, it takes less than a second. Neural impulses travel at speeds from 1 to 120 meters per second.

Literature connections

Several books can be used alongside this activity for student reference. They are:

Your Wonderful Body! by Joyce Hurwitz and Roz Schanzer

Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body by David Macaulay

Dr. Frankenstein's Human Body Book by Richard Walker

If students finish their neuron model earlier than others, these books can be consulted. They contain information on neurons and the nervous system in general.

Artistic connections

This activity addresses the "Visual Arts Skill Development" Vermont Standard A1-2:10. It reads, "students show skill development when creating art by handling and naming art tools and materials." It also addresses Standard A1-2:12 which requires students to "name and use a variety of media, genre, and techniques." Specifically, our use of clay as a medium and our 3D model of a neuron address these standards.

Connection to Educational Standards

[Educational Standards]

Vermont Standard:

  • S1-2:41: Students demonstrate their understanding of Human Body Systems (The Nervous System)
  • A1-2:10: Students show skill development when creating art by handling and naming art tools and materials.
  • A1-2:12: Students name and use a variety of media, genre, and techniques.
  • M3: 2 Demonstrates understanding of the relative magnitude of numbers.

Next steps

After this activity is completed, the nervous system could be explored more thoroughly by discussing the specific types of neurons-- sensory, interneurons, and neuroglial cells. For older students, connections between the nervous system and excretory system can be explored. Also, another activity could be conducted to show the nervous system within the body as a whole; go deeper into how neurons connect to the brain.


Overall, the lesson worked well. Students liked the very hands on activity, and many constructed their neurons in a very accurate (and artistic) fashion. Having a large poster at the head of the classroom was especially helpful; as they labeled the parts, students looked on the large poster for reference. Many students were very excited to take their "art projects" home. The "must do" aspect of the lesson was certainly the dominoes segment. Students were excited to watch the mousetrap snap the hand and were anxious to "pass the message along" by setting off their row of dominoes. This segment of the lesson was most effective, we believed. Afterward, students accurately summarized the path of the "message" from the hand to the spinal cord (and brain, for pain) and back to the hand, when students said they would be forced to "pull their hand away and yell ouch!" The dominoes activity provided a great visual representation for the whole lesson. It was also a good activity to end with; the neuron construction required calm focus, and the dominoes activity was something for students to look forward to and left them energized! Even with our success, there was certainly room for improvement. After testing our lesson, we were surprised at how little the students knew about the nervous system. Many had not heard of it at all or had heard of it but knew nothing more. Keeping this in mind, considerable time should be allocated to explain the basics of the human nervous system. Furthermore, more time should have been given to explain the function of the parts of the neuron-- or perhaps second and third grade students were too young for this information. In terms of improving the dominoes activity-- only a few students set off their line of dominoes in the opposite direction it was intended. To eliminate this minor mishap, teachers should explain that the "message" flows in one direction, and all dominoes should be falling in the same direction, too. -Callie Lumbra

Even with the short time slot that we were given, this activity proved to be a success. It was suitable for the age and understanding level in the second grade class we were gearing it towards. The kids loved molding the clay and figuring out where each part of the neuron was with the flags. They were very enthusiastic about the art aspect of the activity but the most rewarding part of the lesson was the domino section of the lesson. Even though it only took about 2 minutes to explain and perform it proved to be the crowd favorite. It was nice seeing the light bulb turn on on the kid’s faces. The dominos really helped them to connect what it is that a neuron does. I learned a lot about teaching kids about science by teaching this activity to these second grade students. I learned that it is a good idea to explain what the kids are about to do before handing out the materials. For next time, I am going to make sure our activity is easy to explain in the time given. Our activity proved to be suitable for a 20 minute time slot. No time was left over for students to browse through literature on the nervous system. To ensure this, teachers should allow 40 minutes for the activity. -Laken Ferreira

On the whole our activity was successful. However, there were some aspects of the activity that did not go as we had envisioned. First of all, when we were explaining the nervous system most of the kids were listening and attentive, but there were some that were more worried about the upcoming activities and had no interest in finding out why they were doing this activity. Some of our difficulty was simply due to the fact that we only had 20 minutes with each group, and each group was made up of 6-9 very excited 2nd and 3rd graders that were understandably having a hard time sitting still. When we began the first activity, the making and labeling of neurons, some tried really hard to do a good job and repeatedly referenced our poster of a labeled neuron in order to make the best neuron they could. Those were the students that completed theirs most accurately and most quickly. Though, there were also students that were either not trying at all or fighting with their partner over who got to make which part of the neuron. This was another problem. We thought we could save on materials by having students work in pairs for the neuron making, but this led to arguments both during the activity and after when the students were trying to decide who got to keep it. Still, there were many pairs that worked very well together. When we moved onto the next part of our activity, the dominoes, we tried to explain how neurons would transmit messages from a hand to a brain and back. We tried to explain that neurons work in an order and all fire in the same direction. Most students completed this accurately as well and got excited about it, but, once again there were some that, because they had not listened to the directions or did not understand them, either did not set off dominoes in front of them or set them off in the wrong direction. If we had more time we probably could have eliminated some of these problems. However, it was successful overall because each student left with some idea about what the nervous system does, what neurons do, and the parts of neurons. -Kerry Cyr

Citations and links

"Neuroscience for Kids - Models." UW Faculty Web Server. Web. 15 Jan. 2010. <>.

Hurwitz, Joyce, and Roz Schanzer. Your Wonderful Body! National Geographic Society, 1982.

Macaulay, David. Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

Walker, Richard. Dr. Frankenstein's Human Body Book. Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2008.