Why Learning Should Be Fun
Or, Why Baby Animals Have It Better Than Schoolchildren
UPDATE: Pediatricians say not to cut recess! “In order to learn well, children need a period of concentrated academic activity followed by a break that allows them to process information…”
Back in the mid-2000s, when I was a newly-minted teacher launching my career, I interviewed at a number of different schools. One school – where they had us take a test and write an essay in response to a question – was a near miss: the teachers and other hiring team members loved me, but then I interviewed with the principal, who brought up my essay. The essay question had been about how I would approach teaching math. I had written that I would use fun, engaging activities to teach the students through different approaches.
The principal – who was one of the most tense, anxious people I have ever met – proceeded to lecture me about how learning should not be “fun,” and that is everything wrong with education these days. She objected to the point of view expressed in my essay, in spite of the fact that it was based in cutting-edge research about teaching math.
Needless to say, I did not get the job.
Fast forward to this holiday season, when I am an independent teacher, tutor and consultant. Here is the text of one of the notes from a second-grade student:
“Thank you for being my math tuter i am very glad i started again… every seshion i have more fun and every seshion i learn more and more.”
Are learning and fun incompatible? According to this student, no way!
Last summer, I reluctantly adopted a kitten, Abby. She was a tiny feral thing, crying and crying on the street for her mama. I captured her, brought her home, cleaned her up, vetted her, and tried my darndest to find her a new home. With the abundance of unwanted kittens this year, though, I had no luck.
She shook up my calm, settled home and older pets. And she shows me how much learning happens through play.
Abby will play with absolutely anything new that comes into the house. If I put something on a table or counter, she knocks it off to see what it does. If it’s mobile, she’ll chase it around the floor. If she can fit in it, she will play hide-and-seek-and-attack. If it smells good, she’ll try to eat it.
Why does she do this? She’s developing the skills and abilities she would need as a predator. And what makes it so miraculous is that she has a great time doing it. Her joy is contagious and makes people want to play with her. She has even won the reluctant affection of my cat-aggressive dog.
Watch any baby animal, and you will see the same kind of thing. This is why we love to be around them, and why they are guaranteed Youtube hits.
This is the incredible grace of youth: in learning what we need to survive, every species plays and discovers. Learning is hard work, but it’s fun!
I could list dozens of scholarly articles talking about why play is important to learning, and the different types of learning through play that children need. If you need that sort of thing, here is a place to start (check page five). But the point here is, what are we doing to our children when we structure play right out of their day and make them sit in desks or on the floor, except for maybe 20 minutes of recess?
Does this mean we should throw out all the workbooks? No way. My students love their workbooks. But that’s because the books are not stressful – they are chances to practice what the students have just learned. They are well designed, and if the students doesn’t understand the concept well enough to complete the homework, I tell them to wait so I can help them. Also, workbooks are not the only tools for learning. We use toys, games, iPad apps, manipulatives, and more. The more learning feels like play, the more fun it is, and the more it happens naturally.
And this is a reason I started using National Novel Writing Month in the classroom. When writing starts out as a joyride, it’s a lot more tolerable to slog through those term papers later on.
When we suck the joy out of learning, we are going against everything the planet and all of nature tells us about what works for real learning. Yes, we need to teach students to survive in the real world – but not by turning them into institutionalized drones.
And not by driving the inspired, fun teachers in favor of real learning to seek other careers.