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Virginia Journal of Education

Let’s Lighten Up!

Research says play and humor both have important roles in learning.

By Suzanne M. Sherman

In his 1988 bestseller, Robert Fulghum figured that all he really needed to know he learned in kindergarten. He listed many basic life principles he learned by playing with others, including share, clean up, apologize, abide by the Golden Rule, be aware of wonder, all things die, look and, finally, in the real world it’s best to hold hands and stick together. 

We could use more of that kind of thinking in most American classrooms. Today, technology has exploded, and the push for standardized tests and memorization has led to the “adultification” of childhood. Play is often seen as a dirty word. This, along with legislation meant to leave no child behind, has fostered a “drill and kill” method of teaching. We drill because students can’t pay attention and they can’t pay attention because their play skills have not been developed.

Psychologist and educator Jean Piaget defined play as “actions that are an end in themselves and do not form part of any series of actions imposed by someone else or from outside. Play involves imagination, improvisation and often the natural world.” In the last several decades, there has been an increasing amount of research on the science of play and its significance in developing the ability to think creatively, problem-solve and learn social rules and mores.

Some of that research has shown that the amount of play is related to the development of the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for cognition. It contains more neurons than the rest of the brain and is responsible for not only coordination and motor skills, but also attention, language processing, sensing musical rhythm, working memory, and self- control. As a result, author and physician Stuart Brown has called play “fertilizer for brain growth,” and says it’s essential in all aspects of life and throughout our life spans. It’s the cornerstone of emotional, social and intellectual growth, even into middle and high school. If a young person doesn’t have a “play past,” there is a greater likelihood of attention issues and unstable relationships. Brown suggests that “rough and tumble” play during childhood is crucial to brain development, learning and memory, and also reduces impulsivity, especially in students diagnosed with ADHD.

In my own classroom, I see the effects of the lack of play. Many students sit at home for hours on end, in front of a box that talks to them, sings to them, excites them, motivates them and, worst of all, thinks for them. There is little to no creativity, problem-solving or imagination in this activity. Images are planted in their brain and they lose the ability to form their own impressions. Opportunities to play have passed by.

Students come to school demanding to be entertained; instead they are asked to follow directions, share, converse and imagine. Some are befuddled, scared and virtually unable to comply. Many students have never heard a fairy tale or a simple rhyming song, played a board game, or known general social rules (take turns, play fair, work together) that develop the social, mathematical and vocabulary skills they need. Play is no longer exploring the outside world—it’s time spent alone on any number of technological devices. We’ve all seen the family of four at dinner in a restaurant, which would be the perfect time to talk, play a game or color. Instead we see cell phones, video games, and iPods out. Minds are immersed on the screen and there is no familial communication.

I have seen the positive results that play and humor can bring. Students in my room begin the year building their own play ideas. At first they are at a loss as to what to do and wonder, “Is she for real?” They’re encouraged to explore, wander, pick up items of interest, build, imagine, and converse with classmates. Cooperative learning, sharing knowledge and using humor are daily activities. Eventually they begin to think learning is fun and notice that when they relax and enjoy, they are better able to retain and use the information they’re learning. The process of play is the catalyst used to develop the whole child, not just for that moment, but for life. 

Often, the play philosophy is mistakenly seen as only an early education theory. However, I have seen the effects in my college-age son and daughter and my high school son. The classes that incorporate play and creative learning are far more successful in engaging them and reaching their long-term memory because they’re fun and interesting.  These classes are the ones they talk about and the ones that entice them to think, connect and develop into tolerant, worldly citizens.

As educators we need to return to the idea of play in the classroom. Learning within the context of play brings it into a child’s world and allows the child to take charge. This is authentic learning that encourages imagination and ownership of learning.

In order to accomplish this we need to develop our own play personality and accentuate it by making it part of our teaching personality. My particular play personality is that of an explorer and a storyteller. My passion for books, reading, music and hands-on learning is an integral part of my teaching style and is infectious. When I am having fun teaching, my students are having fun learning, and soon it takes on a life of its own. They begin asking questions about what we’re going to read or sing, and what kind of fun activities I have in store for them that day.

As Temple University professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek says, “Even if we don’t understand it perfectly, it’s silly to take play away from society. It’s like taking love away. It’s crazy.”

Sherman, a member of the King William Education Association, is a second grade teacher at Cool Spring Primary School. She was one of Virginia’s 2012-13 Regional Teachers of the Year.



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