If you have a classroom of dull Jacks and Jills, you might be missing one crucial learning element.


There are two things I’ll never forget about 5th grade.

One is the Spelling Game Show we played every Friday. I looked forward to it all week. It was an individual competition for points, with a variety of categories–spell the word, define the word, draw it, act it out, use it in a sentence. You could sacrifice or split points if you recruited the help of a friend. Other details are fuzzy, but my memory clearly recalls that my peers were as engaged as I was, and it was a fun time for even the worst spellers.

The other thing I’ll never forgot is Race Across America (and in 6th grade, Race Across Latin America). The class was divided into teams, and the teams gave themselves creative names. There was an incredible sense of camaraderie. A huge map was installed on the bulletin board. In order to see your team advance on the map, individual activities had to be completed, such as worksheets, reading assignments, and reports on given locales, but competitive team activities, like trivia challenges, were also built into the race. I’m sure there was a reward for the winning team, but what I remember most was a general sense of excitement about history hour for those few weeks.

That teacher, my first male teacher, really understood the importance of play to education, even with students that rapidly approached a self-conscious puberty. It’s easy to work play time or playful activities into the curriculum for elementary students, but increasingly, the value of play to learning is garnering attention in secondary and post-secondary settings. This article cites a variety of research on the value of play to developing creative thought, teamwork, empathy, and problem solving. Play is inherently enjoyable, and if learning is enjoyable, as my 5th grade experience was, its impacts are longer-lasting.

When I wrote about the use of games in the classroom in the past, one striking point is how games are often used as an incentive or reward for when students finish their real (read: serious, solitary, boring, under-stimulating) work. But for learning to function, it should nearly always be pleasurable, collaborative, engaging, and stimulating. After all, the adage in its complete form goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

How do you inject an element of fun into your teaching? How do you make unexciting themes playful?

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