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Posted at 11:19 AM ET, 06/ 4/2010

Why fun is important in learning

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, a program of the ASCD, an educational leadership organization.

By Sean Slade
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 where 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.

Let's look at the responses of readers to recent education articles and blogs: made an interesting point about students learning physics by visiting nuclear power plants. The custodial staff at these plants gets a tour every day, yet do they turn into physicists? Engineers? Or even Technicians? Hardly. They remain custodians.
Authentic Learning, Washington Post, 03/26/10

More touchy feely nonsense that gives kids a FALSE sense of the real world. This is just like NOT keeping score in kiddie soccer and giving everyone a trophy.
Comfortable Students Leads to Engaged Students, Whole Child Blog (, 03/09/10

Almost everything a school assigns these days requires the internet— don’t teachers and administrators understand that kids cannot stay focused with the world (literally) at their fingertips?
TV, games, iPods vs. school, Washington Post, 01/21/10

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?

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):

The task has to be behaviorally relevant to the learner, which is why the brain will not adapt to senseless tasks.

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.

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 4, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Learning  | Tags:  ascd, engaging students, fun in education, healthy classrooms, healthy school communitiesy, learning, theory of learning  
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The author speaks of the lack of fun in educational research, but if you were to tour most classrooms, especially in urban districts, I think you would see a complete over-reliance on "fun" lessons over substantive lessons. Teachers too often confuse a fun lesson with a good lesson. Fun is good, but learning is the real reason students are there.

I speak from experience here. I started my career trying to make everything fun, but soon learned that the fun wasn't translating into the kind of achievement I was looking for. I'm afraid not enough teachers learn this lesson...

Posted by: HappyTeacher | June 4, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Recommend the following on this topic:

"Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience", Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author and psychology professor from the University of Chicago).

This professor, who was a teenager during WWII and wondered why people stayed in certain miserable situations, based his research on enjoyment in life as opposed to suffering. He was intrigued by people who would play chess, climb mountains and create art for no other purpose than that they enjoyed it, and he spent many years studying people engaged in activities that the rest of the world regards as "fun". Fun is rather more complex than most of us think.

He makes a number fascinating points about happiness and enjoyment that are linked to learning, among them:

1. There is a distinct difference between pleasure and enjoyment: pleasure is of the moment and may not require skill; in the process of enjoyment,a certain amount of skill is required and growth can take place and continue.

2. Several criteria were necessary for enjoyment to ocurr: skills had to be at least matched for the task at hand, even for those things regarded as fun, or the person just became frustrated. I believe he goes into the element of challenge (it's been awhile since I read this book) -
that there has to be at least some challenge or the work is not interesting, but if the challenge is too high, again the
person becomes frustrated.

3. Periods of relaxation are important; if the brain is constantly in a work mode, the transition state in which the "aha" moments will occur do not happen.

Professor Csikszentmihali's work made many significant contributions to the understanding of creativity, regardless of the field.

The title of the book, "FLOW", refers to an
optimal mental state in which the person is so engaged that he/she loses track of time, caught up in the experience true enjoyment.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 4, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, pre-k funding is dwindling in many cities across the United States. Therefore, in order to help our children succeed; it is simply time for parents to step up to the plate. Parents can begin by reading aloud to their children daily. Twenty minutes a day will increase their vocabulary and comprehension. Books are free at the public libraries. Parents can purchase inexpensive educational CDs that teach alphabet sounds, vowel sounds, and much more.

Yes, pre-k for all children would be great…but in the mean time parents, let us do what we can to help our children succeed. Go to and purchase “Teach Me How To Read…So I Can Succeed.” This CD promotes literacy and parental involvement. In addition, the CD is performed by children and is fun and upbeat. . Check out the web site and listen to the sample music.

Posted by: readtomeamerica | June 4, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

This is a straw man argument. In the real world, in DCPS, there is much more poorly executed "fun" in the classrooms than the author suggests. Come back to the real world and these columns will make sense, until then parents look at this and wonder where you get your data from.

I believe there is too much "Fun" in the classrooms that distracts from learning and not enough learning fun. Fun becomes a "break" from learning according to the teachers who don't seem to have the smarts to combine the two.

Posted by: bbcrock | June 4, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Seems everyone has a different definition of the word 'fun' and its easy to interpret it as being clownish or silly in the classroom. But as a parent, I'm looking for teachers and schools that encourage learning in a way that is creative, lively, and encouraging individuality. The author defined 'fun' in this educational context as meaning "engagement, doing and learning what has meaning and purpose, and it means being challenged." Call it what you want, but this is exactly how I'd hope my kids will be educated!

Posted by: SeanSladeASCD | June 4, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

Fun implies that you are teaching the students to enjoy the subject you are teaching so that they will want to learn. Fun in this sense is not entertainment or silliness. It is enjoyment of the learning process. I think of it as what we used to call "enrichment" and now call "rigor".

This kind of fun takes a lot more time and skill to plan. Teachers also have to explain to the students why they are doing the activities they are doing in a "fun" way, because sometimes the students are not aware that they are learning in this way.

In practice, having students interact is not as easy as having them sitting quietly. There is more commotion. It takes a great deal of skill to run this kind of a classroom and sometimes kids can't handle it, so there has to be more structure.

I think some people think that this kind of engagement, rigor or fun, whatever you want to call it is a waste of time.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 4, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

Celestun100: "This kind of fun takes a lot more time and skill to plan. Teachers also have to explain to the students why they are doing the activities they are doing in a "fun" way, because sometimes the students are not aware that they are learning in this way."

You are so right! However, if done correctly, no explanation will be needed. Students should be taught to make connections and draw conclusions from what is done in the classroom to other subjects or lessons. Typically a "fun" lesson can be used as a "hook" to reel them in for a more technical lesson later. Once you have them on board, it is easier to engage them in more drill type activities if necessary.

I have found over the years that students often do not have the will to stick to difficult tasks like they used to. Then tend to give up on things that they perceive as "hard." The fun gets them started and can be used at intervals to keep them going. Once they accomplish something they initially perceived as difficult they will feel a real sense of achievement.

Posted by: musiclady | June 5, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Fun may have its place, but it certainly has its limitations. Just look at other walks of life. Pick up a musical instrument and just have "fun" with it. You may get good enough to amuse yourself, but unless you're Mozart you'll never play Carnegie Hall or even join a garage band unless you've got other compensating abilities.

How 'bout sports? Pick a sport like baseball and just have fun. Show up for games, but don't do anything else because games are where the fun and glory are. You'll likely never make it on a team that even remotely wants to win.

In both these cases, and many others, you need to spend MOST of your time doing things that aren't fun to get good at anything. An irony here is that the typical kid gets this FAR more than your typical education "expert".

Sure, you can give a group of little kids some magnets and paper clips and they'll learn something by having fun. But the edu-idiots expect that this "strategy" should continue throughout high school. Reading this article and some of these comments I'm not in the least surprised that I've had high school students who couldn't multiply by 10.

Oh, and I just love the re-definition of the word "rigor". Get a dictionary.

Posted by: physicsteacher | June 6, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse


I know what rigor means. The new definition is educational jargon. I don't like it either.

My subject is foreign language and part of that is to teach kids to speak in the target language. The kids speak to each other for practice and they think it is fun. It doesn't mean that is all they do and it is difficult, often more difficult than reading or writing. (Which they also do)

Posted by: celestun100 | June 6, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse

Most of these comments seem to assume that working hard at something can't be fun. This is just the same attitude Mr. Slade criticized--that if students are enjoying schoolwork they must not be learning anything.

And by the way, physicsteacher, what's wrong with just only being "good enough to amuse yourself" with a musical instrument? Or with just playing a game for the fun of moving without caring who won? Part of the problems with students is we have taught them that if they are not good enough or interested enough to be tops in the field they shouldn't bother.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 8, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

While it is possible to see fun in classrooms that does not directly lead to learning, it is also possible to see non-fun classroom activities that don't work, either. Certainly, activities need to be about more than fun in order to be effective. They can and should be planned to engage students in direct, authentic fun lessons that focus on grade level skills. In logical terms, fun by itself may be "necessary" (which I agree it is) but it is not "necessary and sufficient." Perhaps we should call it something else, such as "focused fun," or "skill-based fun."

Posted by: syndactics | June 8, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I am so intrigued by the comments that I had to post one in support of adding more fun to education. For years I have been using fun games and hands-on activities to introduce new concepts in my elementary classes. The students then apply the new material to “rigorous” real-work projects that are rich with opportunities for cognitive and social/emotional learning. These multifaceted projects are completely standards-based and tend to make regular subjects like Social Studies, Mathematics and English Language Arts more relevant for students. I have been using this approach for over 10 years and have consistently found the engagement level to be very high for all types of learners including special needs, gifted, behaviorally-challenged and autistic.

I agree with the comments that this approach can actually require more work from the teacher. It really helps to find resources packages that make it easy to incorporate experiential learning into the classroom. PowerPlay Young Entrepreneurs is definitely a favorite with my students. Check out this video and you’ll see the impact that fun can have on a classroom:

Posted by: funteacher | June 8, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I love this discussion, having been a long-time advocate of that vile three-letter word, "FUN," in the context of school. As the artist who wrote above about FLOW, we need to think about "fun" not as a separate entity/emotion that we apply as needed to spice up the classroom, but rather as an approach to learning that can turn the most important ideas into an enjoyable experience. We're not talking about teachers in clown suits here, and I'm pretty tired of, as Slade points out, the Puritan ethic that equates fun with evil. If we refuse to allow laughter, movement, discussion, enjoyment into our classrooms because their contribution to learning cannot be "measured," then we are missing the point of 40 years of brain research. Connections, insights, participation, and engagement are ALL inspired by enjoyment.

So, here's the rub: When are we going to stop imagining that having kids learn to fill in the correct bubbles on a standardized test really measures anything worthwhile? When are we going to stop running our schools for the "bottom line" and do it for the good of the kids (and the teachers and the parents, who are all caught in a huge, lucrative machine)? What we need to do is carry on, inspire and excite the natural love of learning that ALL kids have ALL the way through their K-12 experience: At the teen level, an exciting discussion can be FUN! A new idea can be FUN! An interesting perspective from another student can be FUN! Thanks for this blog, Valerie, and for uncovering yet another common sense approach to learning that all of us out here on the ground know is true! Patricia Kokinos,

Posted by: changemkr | June 8, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

When the content is boring I will add fun educational games to the material to help the kids engage with it.

Posted by: jlp19 | June 9, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

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