Lesson Plan: Your Brainstem Sends Messages
Curriculum Alignment
NextGen Science Standards

LS1.A: Structure and Function

All organisms have external parts. Different animals use their body parts in different ways to see, hear, grasp objects, protect themselves, move from place to place, and seek, find, and take in food, water and air. Plants also have different parts (roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits) that help them survive and grow. (1-LS1-1)

LS1.D: Information Processing

Animals have body parts that capture and convey different kinds of information needed for growth and survival. Animals respond to these inputs with behaviors that help them survive. Plants also respond to some external inputs.

Learning Objective

Your Brainstem is the most ancient part of the brain. It regulates automatic activities like breathing, swallowing, blinking.


This lesson is to support and extend the Feeling Mindful and RoboBrain apps, and the video called Brainstem Breathing. In this lesson, students will discover the role of the brainstem in regulating the body’s functions. Then they can try their hand at doing just one ‘job’ of the brainstem, sending messages to tell the heart to pump.

Before the lesson

If possible give students a chance to play the Feeling Mindful game. Download Feeling Mindful: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/feeling-mindful/id972240769?mt=8

Another option is to cue up to show the Brainstem Breathing video on Youtube:


Print the brain diagram or find another graphic that will illustrate the shape and location of the brainstem.


Begin by talking with students about the brainstem:

The brainstem is the lower part of the brain, connected to the spinal cord. It is in charge of functions your body needs to stay alive. These are things like breathing air, digesting food, and circulating blood.

The brainstem sends messages to your heart, stomach, and intestines using the nerves of our nervous system. Regulating breathing is an example of the way our brain controls everything.

Watch the Youtube video on Brainstem Breathing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdcWjQXIE04

Have students practice the slow breathing exercise. Ask student what the lungs do. Remind them that they can use slow breathing to relax, but the brainstem will also regulate their breathing. It does this with a message saying Breathe in! Breathe out!

Now, talk about the other jobs the brainstem does for our bodies. Help students think of the messages that the brainstem might send. For example: Blink! Pump blood!

Tell the class that you are going to do an activity. The goal is to try for one minute to send just one kind of the many messages handled by the brainstem. You are going to use a piece of colored paper to represent the messages.

Note that depending on your class needs, you may wish to review vocabulary words like involuntary, circulatory and cardiovascular systems.

Have some students volunteer to do the job of the brainstem. You can have as many volunteers as your classroom space will allow, but be sure to have enough paper for the students to send a message for each heartbeat. See text box for average heart rates for children.

The students who volunteer will come to the front of the class and be seated at a desk or on the floor. Give each volunteer a set of each of the colored papers. Explain that they will send a message each time they feel a heartbeat by placing a piece of paper in the cup, representing the message that is sent to the heart by the brainstem.  Say: A message sent from the brainstem tells the heart to pump, which makes a heartbeat.

Set a timer for thirty seconds OR one minute.

Have students put a piece of colored paper in a cup each time they feel a heartbeat. This activity will require them to go quickly.

At the end of a minute, ask how it was for them. Without a brainstem, could they tell their heart to beat all day and night? Why?

Then add that besides breathing, the brainstem also controls blinking, food digestion, and swallowing. All animals have a brainstem that does this.

See below for some ideas about how to extend this lesson.

Further Exploration

As a writing extension activity, have students to write a thank you note to their brainstems.  Dear Brainstem, Thank you for _____.  Supply students with words such as circulation, breathing, digestion.  Others ideas include blinking, sneezing, and swallowing.

Download Printables
Web Resources

Involuntary muscle


Discuss how these muscles work with the brainstem, responding to the input that keeps them doing their work.