Let the Children Play: Why Adding Fun to the Classroom Helps Kids Learn

I have a colleague who recently returned to the elementary classroom after a 10-year break. As expected, much has changed — technology, communication expectations (text messaging barely existed when she left) and school safety drills.

Yet she found the most striking changes are the heightened expectations of the Common Core Curriculum Standards and the more frequent, high-stakes standardized testing. “I would think nothing of bringing the kids outside on a Friday afternoon, after a long week of school, to play kickball,” she said. “I would never consider that today. People would look at me like I was crazy.”

While I applaud our schools’ strong focus on academics, I do think we are missing out on the idea of “school as fun.” Of course, school isn’t just a summer camp with desks, and we need to have academic rigor and high expectations, but there’s something to be said for taking the students outside, rolling out the kickball and having at it.

Keep these thoughts in mind if you want to inject more fun in your classroom:

Learning can be caught, and not just taught

We fall into the trap of thinking learning is best done inside the four walls of our classrooms. Breaking up the monotony of the day, getting the students outside and letting them burn off some energy will have a positive impact on your classroom.

Layer learning onto the outside activities by tying questions and answers to games. For example, during the aforementioned kickball game, allow all runners to advance a base if they can answer a subject-specific question. Making the experience enjoyable and tying it to learning will help to break down barriers for some students.

Aim for balance

Fun is, well, fun. As a result, students will want to return time and again to activities that aren’t purely academic. Strive for balance and don’t be pulled into overdoing the fun. It’s not good for your students and will be noticed by colleagues, parents and school administrators.

Set clear time expectations and stick to them. Hearty laughter and joy in the classroom are good things, but they work best when applied in just the proper amount. If you’re unsure where that line is, consult with your more experienced colleagues (and be wary of the colleague who tells you to avoid fun at all costs.)

Find fun onscreen

Tablets, apps and laptops have created many opportunities for the “gamification” of learning. There are benefits to shrouding learning in gameplay, as students may not realize just how much learning is happening when they get pulled into the adventure of a good game.

Vet any new games and make sure that they aren’t just bright and shiny distractions to learning. The right game will prove invaluable to your class — rich learning, student immersion, and deeper understanding — and its use should be woven into your practice.

Go old-school

Yes, there was a time before “Angry Birds.” It did exist. I was there. Let me strongly emphasize the tremendous benefit of teaching your students old-school board games — Life, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, Battleship and Connect Four pop immediately to mind.

There is so much benefit to having your students play these games. The thinking and learning needed for good strategy, following rules and being a good loser (and winner) are just a few of the positive takeaways.

It’s good for students to win and lose from time to time, and the low social impact of losing a board game is a good lesson. Beyond these games, students should learn to play checkers and chess as well as more complex games like Risk and Settlers of Catan. Mental acuity honed while having fun will be of tremendous help to your work.

Play games, have fun, laugh out loud with your students. All of these, taken in appropriate measure, will be good for them and even better for you. Just be sure to be a good loser along the way.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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