While I tend to be a creature of habit in most aspects of my life, when it comes to cooking, I love to wander off the downtrodden path and improvise. Recipes, shmeshipes I say. I cook from the heart, and stomach. What do I think will taste good in this dish? That question drives me when I’m in the kitchen. I love chocolate chips, and so even though most recipes do not call for them, I love to throw them in. Chocolate makes everything better. As my son can’t consume high quantities of salt, I usually discard that ingredient from recipes when cooking something that he may enjoy. I get a little funky and try new things when baking or cooking. It’s a great release for my creativity. A dash of this, a pound of that, and lots of chocolate chips.
Over my years in education, I’ve tried to adopt this same improvisational approach to my teaching. I like to take risks, try new things, and engage my students. This often means that I need to think on my feet, adapt a lesson or activity in order to meet the needs of my students, and revise my plans frequently. As the large body of research on learning and the brain tells us, students learn best when they are engaged. To engage my students, I work to make learning fun. How does one make learning fun, you are probably asking yourself right now. Although schools have changed over time, if your experience was anything like mine, there was very little fun to be had during the class part of your school day. The fun came at recess, lunch, and snack. Learning was rarely fun for me when I was in school. Fortunately for our students, schools and the world of education have evolved much over time. Fewer schools and teachers are using textbooks, and teacher-directed instruction is now only a small part of each lesson or activity. As teachers, we now have the flexibility to make use of project-based activities and hands-on learning. We are working to make learning fun for our students.
So, what’s the secret to making learning fun? Well, that’s just it, there is no tried and true formula for making learning fun, as every student and school is different. What might be fun for one student may not be enjoyable for another. Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic wand to give you that will allow you to make learning fun for your students; however, I do have some tips and tricks. You see, while there is no set recipe for fun in the classroom, if you start with a few key ingredients, you may find that fun happens.
First, as the neuroscience research tells us, it starts with safety. The students need to feel safe, respected, and cared for in the classroom. You need to create a welcoming space for the students to enter each and every day. Setting up your classroom in such a way that the students have options for how they learn is crucial. Not all students learn best sitting in a chair at a desk. Some students like to get comfortable in a bean bag or on the floor. Organizing your classroom with different types of spaces is vital to helping students feel respected and cared for. The other key component for students to feel safe in your classroom is the social-emotional curriculum. Do you address the anxiety levels of your students? Do you provide students with a safe space to share their feelings? Do you make use of mindfulness strategies? Do you begin each morning by warmly greeting your students and engaging them in conversation? If not, you will want to dig into each of those areas so that you are creating a culture of care and compassion in the classroom. Only when students feel safe can genuine learning happen.
The second key ingredient required to make learning fun is a sense of humor. Being able to laugh at yourself in front of the students and make really awesome Dad Jokes, as my students like to call them, helps to create an atmosphere of trust and silliness in the classroom. When the students see that they don’t need to be so serious all the time, they let their guard down, they open up, they share their feelings, they laugh, and they have fun. Each Morning Meeting in my fifth grade classroom includes a pun. For example, the pun I used on the last day of school prior to the holiday break was, “How do Christmas Trees keep their breath smelling so fresh?” Any ideas? My students guessed things like their pine scent, which were chili pepper ideas, but incorrect. The answer, “Orna-mints.” Hilarious, I know. Beginning the day with silly jokes and riddles helps the students see that learning and school can be fun and enjoyable.
The third key ingredient needed for fun to spontaneously break out in the classroom is, wait for it, novelty. Trying new things, taking a different approach to an old concept, and making things fresh for the students helps to trigger their brains to pay attention. Our brains crave new things, and so when we teach a concept in a unique way, our students will pay close attention because their brains are telling them to do so. For example, instead of using those mundane grammar worksheets we all grew up having to complete, I teach grammar through stories. I tell my students the story of how this gang of super heroes saved my life one night. I explain how I was being accosted in the alley by some villains when out of seemingly no where comes this group of superheroes to save the day. Super Noun Man uses his hands, super strength, and super speed to help, while Super Verb Lady uses her many super actions to intercede on my behalf. I create this elaborate tale all about how each part of speech gets involved in saving my life. When I shared this story with my students this year, one student asked, “I notice that each super hero helped you using examples of the part of speech they are.” Exactly! Students love new and fun things. So, trying to find different and cool ways to teach a concept or introduce a new unit is paramount for fun to be had in the classroom.
The fourth ingredient has to do with the activities or lessons themselves. Are the students doing something? Are the students working with their peers? Is there hands-on learning taking place in the classroom? Students crave social interactions with their peers. They love talking to the other students. So, making use of carefully constructed group projects or partner activities allows for this to happen in meaningful ways. Students also learn best when they are doing something. Rather than spewing information at them, allow them to experiment with a new concept and investigate how it works. After briefly explaining how speed differs from velocity, I had the students, working in pairs, create a marble track that maximized speed while also having at least two changes in velocity. This was a challenging but super fun task for the students. It allowed them to tinker and find solutions on their own. As the students worked, I asked each partnership probing questions about the concepts to be sure they understood the difference. And they did. They got it, and had a ton of fun doing so.
The fifth and final necessary ingredient needed for fun to be fostered in the classroom, is, yes, you guessed it, love. It seems hokey, but so very important. You’ve got to love what you are doing in the classroom. If you don’t love your lesson, activity, unit, or read-aloud novel, then the students will see through your fake smile and know that what they are doing is not fun. This is probably one of the most difficult ingredients to get right for learning to become fun. It’s not easy to make paragraph writing engaging and fun; however, if you think about the other key ingredients for fun and engagement to happen in the classroom, then it’s totally doable. Finding ways to love everything you do in the classroom ties the other four ingredients together like wonderful wrapping paper. When you love what you are doing in the classroom, the students will see it and start to love it as well. Positivity and excitement are contagious. When you share with the students the marble track you made on the wall of your classroom because you want to jump in on the fun they are sure to have, the students get pumped. Then, when you have a student stand underneath the end of the marble track you have mounted on your wall and say, “Okay, now I need someone to stand right about there and face the opposite direction,” the students raise their hands as if you are giving away a new computer or phone.
Although there is no secret recipe for bringing about fun in the classroom, there are five key ingredients that will make fun possible: Creating a safe learning environment, having a sense of humor, novelty, hands-on learning and group projects, and having a love of what you are doing in the classroom. When you mix equal parts of those five ingredients together, fun is bound to happen in your classroom. Learning doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it can easily be engaging and fun, if you take the time to knead each lesson or unit into just the right shape. When the students are having fun learning new concepts or applying old concepts to new ones, you are creating lifelong learners. What students learn when they are having fun will not soon be forgotten, unlike those ridiculous grammar worksheets from your eighth grade English class.