I want you to close your eyes and think about all of the classes you've taken over the years. What do these classes have in common? I've asked this question to several teachers and students and overwhelmingly the majority of people say the courses in which they were able to have choice, do projects, and create were the ones they still remember. They enjoyed the class, which leads me to believe fun improves learning.
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Why Does Fun Improve Learning?
A lot of time is devoted to the science of reading and how the brain works, but there hasn't been much talk about how neuroscience supports having fun in the classroom improves learning. Research suggests students' learn best when the experiences are enjoyable and relevant to their lives, interests, and experiences.
Education theorists have determined that student learning is associated with their emotions. For example, if students are stressed, confused, or bored, these emotions can significantly interfere with learning. Of course, this is no surprise — we can agree that these emotions are not what we want our students to exhibit. Unfortunately, we see these behaviors displayed in our students in classrooms across the country.
Obstacles Impeding Fun
I've always said the worst thing about education is the current emphasis on standardized testing. In the quest to raise test scores, teachers feel pressure to teach to the test, have a more subdued classroom, and stick to the curriculum map. These obstacles can be overwhelming to teachers and students and cause classroom management problems.
And while I know we all have jobs to do and should always follow the mandates laid out by the powers that be; I believe there are ways to make learning fun, do well on the test, and stick to the curriculum.
There is a lot of brain research that promotes the idea how fun and curiosity improve learning. A lot of it is a bit overwhelming and hard to understand, so I will keep it simple.
The acronym RAD is an excellent reminder of three important facts related to the brain and student learning.
R – Lessons that are stimulating and challenging pass through the Reticular activating system, a filter in the lower brain that focuses on how novelty promotes information transmission.
A – If the classroom experience is free from stress, it allows information to pass through the Amygdala's filter.
D – When activities are pleasurable, the brain releases Dopamine which helps memory and attention.
Planning for Fun to Improve Learning
Now that you understand the research behind improved cognitive learning, it is crucial to plan lessons that meet your student population's needs and learning styles. Here are just a few things to consider when planning.
Create a Fun Responsive Classroom
One of the most important things you can do is build relationships with your students. Start by setting aside time for morning meetings. Morning meetings, at their core, are a time to talk, share, and get to know one another. However, in my time as an educational consultant, I've had opportunities to share with teachers my approach to morning meetings. Teachers love the ideas I've shared with them, but many tell me they don't have time for implementation.
I understand the time factor. When I taught second grade two years ago, adding the morning meeting into the day was difficult. So I decided to add more literacy components to that block of time. Students loved the weekly interactive read-aloud and practicing their daily affirmations.
Relate Learning to Real-World
There are so many ways to make learning fun, but it's vital that the learning be relevant to the students and pique their interest. I also believe students should understand how knowledge is related to the real-world. Some ways to plan in this way include:
Project-Based Learning – If you haven't tried project-based learning, you need to join our Facebook group as we begin to have the conversation about the importance of this practice in the classroom.
Escape Rooms – Great novelty activity to help engage and challenge students.
And STEM Related Activities – My Fun Friday units are a great way to learn through discovery.
Understand Learning Styles
Knowing that students learn better from novelty, be aware of the importance of using learning styles in your instruction. Believe it or not, I wouldn't recommend taking the time to learn student's learning styles. I think most learners learn through a variety of methods at any given moment. So I try to incorporate as many different learning styles into most of my lessons; simultaneously as possible:
V – Visual learners: Add a visual to your lessons such as anchor chart, presentation, or technology application
A – Auditory learners: Add class discussions, read-alouds, think-pair-share, music, and verbal instructions
R – Read/Write learners: Students need to take notes. Even the youngest learners can write down what they are learning using whiteboards.
K – Kinesthetic learners: Have students move around the room, work on projects, build things, and tactile learning with manipulatives.
Student Choice Makes Learning Fun
One year I helped a fifth-grade teacher struggling with classroom management. The students were not engaged, talked out, and at times were disrespectful. The teacher was at her wit's end and was ready to quit.
So one day, I met with the teacher, we rolled up our sleeves and made a plan. We knew we had to meet the students where they were. The first thing we did was ask the students what they enjoyed. Students enjoyed videos games, music, drawing, and much more.
We started allowing students to choose how they wanted to show what they know about their learning. Believe it or not, student behavior changed from disrespect and boredom to laughter and engagement. We learned so much about our students and their talents. They showed tremendous growth, and believe it or not; they scored well on the test.
Over and over again, we have found with our work with schools, teachers, and students that the test takes care of itself when the focus is on learning, having fun, and relationships.