Learning should be fun to grab students’ interest with engaging lessons
If the longstanding TV program Sesame Street teaches anything, it is that kids don’t need dry lessons and humorless lectures to learn. In fact, when teachers add fun activities to their classroom agendas, they ignite kids’ natural curiosity about more than just the three R’s.
And that’s not the only reason why learning should be fun. The real benefit is that when children are taught early on to enjoy learning, they’ll make it a lifelong habit.
Learning Fun: What It Is and Isn’t
To be clear, when teachers talk about fun lesson plans, they don’t mean replacing traditional school work with back-to-back board games. Nor do they mean diluting academic standards to the point that coloring within the lines can substitute for having to write grammatically correct sentences.
What fun learning does mean is that teachers use non-traditional lessons to teach essential skills. Why non-traditional? Because allowing students to create a PowerPoint presentation rather than draft a five-paragraph essay allows them to demonstrate knowledge of a topic that might not grab their interest in a way that does.
The theory behind educational fun comes down to this: children are born with a hunger for knowledge about the world around them.
Fun learning is based on a fact that’s almost inarguable: learning doesn’t begin on the first day of kindergarten. It starts at birth. The 100 million or so cells in a newborn’s brain allow infants to soak in knowledge just by observing the world, by hearing the sound made by a rattle or seeing their mother’s face.
As babies grow, their natural curiosity about the world they’ve been observing leads them to make discoveries. They discover, for example, what happens when they trap a lightning bug in a jar or stick a fork into an electric outlet. These natural desires children have — to observe, explore, and discover — are traits teachers are hoping to provoke when they design classwork around fun activities.
Motivated to Learn
“Motivating students is one of the major challenges teachers face on a daily basis,” wrote Tammy L. Stephens, Ph.D. For decades, motivating students wasn’t a concern for teachers. The students had no choice but to do as they were told. But today’s educators want to rely on more than extrinsic motivation. They’re hoping to inspire kids to develop the same kind of intrinsic motivation that makes people pursue hobbies they love.
That’s where fun learning enters the mix. Teachers now believe that children are more energized to learn when they have fun doing so. Fun learning focuses on how to make students feel connected to school subjects.
So, for example, in a unit on the Civil War, a teacher might have students try to solve the issues of slavery and secession by imagining they were living in the American South in 1860. Such an exercise allows students to see how abstract ideas play out in real-world scenarios. This fun approach would motivate students to learn about the war in a way that sparked their interest.
Engaged in Lessons
Along with motivating students to learn, teachers want to engage them. Engaged students participate in lessons, largely because they can relate to the subject. Engagement accomplishes two things – it builds student interest in a topic and helps to sustain it over time.
What does engagement look like? Well, it’s the opposite of students remaining silent in their seats as the teacher delivers a lecture. When students are engaged, they’re executing a science project, writing a play, or holding a debate. K-6 teacher Heather, who runs the blog “Minds in Bloom,” relies on fun activities now and then so students can get out of their seats and put theory into practice.
The Right Environment for Learning
Educators have long believed that children learn best in a peaceful, orderly environment. The fun learning crowd agrees and would add the adjectives “happy” and “relaxed” to that description.
Peter Gray is a member of that crowd. In his book, “Free to Learn,” Gray cautions that taking fun out of learning will “stunt mental growth.”
The proof Gray offers is an experiment done 30 years ago at Virginia Polytechnic State University. Researchers observed people who were learning to play pool. They found that once the players knew their game was being evaluated, they stopped enjoying it and played badly. The experiment, says Gray, shows that, like the novice pool players, children are “designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own,…without it, they suffer.”