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Have Fun and Learn

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  • Post published:May 5, 2015
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Why fun is important in learning

By Valerie Strauss

Why do we assume that learning only occurs when kids are serious and quiet?

This anti-fun vein evident in education editorials and discussion boards highlights a fundamental issue in education today and, in fact, has been with us for centuries.

The belief remains strong that learning can only take place when kids are quiet and the work laborious, that any activities which engaged kids seem to be enjoying themselves must be superfluous, and that teachers who make learning fun run the risk of being declared unprofessional.

This thinking is having an adverse effect on what kids learn and how they are taught.

Brain research suggests that fun is not just beneficial to learning but, by many reports, required for authentic learning and long-term memory.

Neurologist and educator Judy Willis’s book “Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher” (ASCD, 2006) is one of many that have highlighted the learning benefits of fun. Here are just a few excerpts:

The truth is that when the joy and comfort are scrubbed from the classroom and replaced with homogeneity, and when spontaneity is replaced with conformity, students’ brains are distanced from effective information processing and long-term memory storage.

The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and “aha” moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of “exuberant discovery,” where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.

So fun actually seems to promote learning. It increases dopamine, endorphins, and oxygen!

The human brain and body respond positively to laughter with the release of endorphin, epinephrine (adrenaline), and dopamine, and with increased breathing volume (more oxygen). When a lesson starts with humor, there is more alerting, and the subsequent information is attached to the positive emotional event as an event or flashbulb memory.

More excerpts on the brain and engagement:

Optimal brain activation occurs when subjects are in positive emotional states or when the material holds personal meaning, connects to their interests, is presented with elements of novelty, or evokes wonder. This is why attentiveness is so closely linked to positive emotional cueing and personal meaning. When there is connection to prior knowledge or positive emotional experience, new information passage through the limbic system will be enhanced. The thalamus will then “decide” to pay attention to the information.

What happens if students aren’t just bored, but afraid or hungry or in pain? They are not only ‘not having fun, but they are in varying states of discomfort and anxiety.’ Laura Erlauer, in her book The Compatible Classroom (ASCD, 2003), explains that stress affects student attention as well and their learning:

High levels of cortisol produced by long-term stress caused shrinkage of the hippocampus, resulting in memory impairment.

Eric Jensen, another noted author in the field of brain-based learning, echoed this link between engagement, dopamine, and learning, but stressed that learning worked best when the activity was intrinsically meaningful to the individual. He notes in his book Teaching with the Brain in Mind (ASCD, 2005):

So if fun actually leads to engagement, meaning and purpose, and, yes, learning, what is the answer for education? Should we create courses based only around what is deemed enjoyable by today’s generation?

No, but we should look at the process of how current courses are taught and delivered. Ultimately, we should resist the knee-jerk urge to declare something that is fun to be educationally inferior.

Fun means engagement, doing and learning what has meaning and purpose, and it means being challenged. Embracing this belief should have a profound effect on what and how we teach.

Is there any evidence to back up the notion that learning can and should be fun, or is this a deviation of our Protestant and Puritan heritage that declares that fun is the work of the devil and so anything worthwhile cannot be also fun?