The Key Ingredients Needed to Make Learning Fun in the Classroom

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.

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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.

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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.

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Making Math Relevant

When I was in school, math class was filled with teacher-directed instruction.  Rarely were there activities or projects.  Usually, we were assigned problems in a textbook or provided worksheets to complete.  This kind of work bored me and so I struggled to see how it applied to my life.  When am I ever going to need to learn how to find the measure of an angle in a stop sign?  Perhaps you frequently get stopped by police officers asking you to determine the angle in the stop sign, but I don’t.  It almost always seemed to me that I was learning useless skills in my math classes.  To this day, other than the basic math operations, I use none of what I was taught in math.  I don’t need it.  Maybe that’s not true.  Perhaps I am using those math skills I was taught, but because their relevance and meaning wasn’t highlighted in class, I never realized how and when I might actually need to find the cube root of the measure of an acute angle.  Then, in eighth grade, my math teacher dropped a bomb.  Not a real bomb mind you, that would have been horrible and atrocious.  No, she allowed me to see how the basic operations I learned in elementary school will be used later in my life.  We completed a unit on financial literacy.  We learned how to balance a checkbook, make a budget, and effectively manage money.  It was awesome.  Everything I had learned in math class started to make sense.  I realized why I needed to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers.  Everything became so clear to me.  I saw the relevance in the math skills.  I wish my other math teachers had made use of such relevant and meaningful activities and projects so that I might better appreciate and still be able to explain why the measure of each angle in a quadrilateral is equal to something and something.  Allowing me to see why I had learned math, changed my life.  It all made sense to me.

As a math teacher, I try with all of my power to make use of hands-on activities and meaningful projects that allow students to see the purpose in the math skills learned.  I want them to understand why they need to know how to find the percentage of a number or add fractions. I generally try to explain the relevance of every skill covered so that they see why they are having to do the work.  I don’t want them to grow up confused like I did.

In STEM class on Saturday, to help my students see the value in accurately adding and subtracting decimals, I made one of my lifetime dreams a reality.  Ever since I was young, I wanted to own a sports card shop.  I love collecting baseball and other sports cards.  When I was in middle school, my friend and I even hosted our own card show in a nearby hotel.  We advertised and made tons of money.  It was awesome.  But, I was never able to do more than that.  Until Saturday.

Rather than just explain to students the real-world application of decimals, I wanted them to experience it first hand.  So, I brought in a bunch of my unopened baseball card packs and boxes and opened Mr. Holt’s Dugout Sports Card Shop in the classroom.  I provided each student with a gift certificate and a piece of graph paper.  They could use the gift certificate to buy as many cards as possible, as long as they accurately and properly completed the addition and subtraction of decimals needed to show how much money they would spend and have left.  It was so much fun.  The students loved opening the cards and finding some hall of famers.  The boys kept running up to me showing me their great finds.  “Look Mr. Holt, I got a Fred McGriff MVP card!”  I smiled and celebrated right along with them, not mentioning the fact that the card is worth less than the paper it was printed on.  They were seeing the relevance in adding and subtracting decimals in the form of money because they needed to effectively apply the skill in order to walk away with free cards.  Following the activity, I asked the students for feedback.  They loved the activity.  One student said, “How could you not love this activity.  We got free baseball cards.  Even if you don’t like baseball, you got free stuff.”  From the mouths of babes.

Yes, I might have enjoyed this activity a tiny bit more than my students as I felt like an entrepreneur, but I also made a math skill relevant to them.  Hopefully, they now all understand the importance of knowing how to add and subtract decimals.  They had so much fun doing math in class.  They were so excited when they found out that they had accurately completed a math problem because it meant they received more fun packs of old baseball cards.  How cool is that?  To me, great teaching is about helping students see the relevance and value in what they are learning.  If they can buy into the curriculum, they will be so much more engaged, thus, making genuine learning happen.