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Shedding My Fear of Fun, Part 1

As an elementary school teacher, I have always been afraid of fun. The noise, the energy and the constant excitement of play seemed too close to chaos. And, as I have written in previous posts, I was one of those new teachers who feared chaos more than anything else. I created clear, predictable schedules and hyper-articulated procedures. Every morning, we sang about the rules before the day began.

This summer I have had an opportunity, mostly with my nephews, to watch kids play. I am not their teacher and we were not in a classroom, and so I was able to sit back and, for the past two months, learn a thing or two about fun. These lessons will be invaluable in the coming year. Over the next two posts I will first discuss how why fun can and, in fact, must be used in a successful classroom. In the following post I will suggest ways in which teachers and administrators can create a fun elementary school.

It took me a while to recognize a basic feature of fun: it is not pleasure. This is clearest in organized fun, such as team sports. Very rarely do I see smiling on the baseball diamond or basketball court. Team sports rely on a competitive energy and a drive to succeed that are exciting in their own right, not merely as a means towards the sensation of victory. But it is also rare, in my experience, to see smiles on the jungle gym, where kids play in a non-competitive manner. Watch a group of kids play house, for instance, and you will find kids so engrossed in their make-believe that they don’t take breaks to laugh. Yet at the end of a day of make-believe, those same kids will certainly tell you that they had fun. Fun, in other words, is anything that is wholly engaging.

If you walk into a classroom during a painting lesson, and find every kid lost in his or her own work, taking the time to experiment with colors, scrap one project to try something new, or rejecting the brush all together to finger paint, then you are likely to say that these kids are having fun. If, on the other hand, you walk into a classroom where half of the kids are reading, and the other half are pretending to read or not even pretending to read, then we would say that there is a problem of motivation, or that there is a discipline issue in the classroom. Perhaps we would add that some of the children are unmotivated, or that they are not read to at home, or that some have learning or behavioral disabilities. It would be more accurate to say that these children are simply not having fun.

So here is my radical new way of thinking: The children in my elementary school need to be taught how to have fun. They have not had enough experience with fun. They are too often discouraged from having fun, or even chastised for having fun. I once said to a particularly active student, in my first year, “Do you just come to school to have fun? School is not a playground!” Frequent admonishments at my school: “You play too much,” or “All he/she does is play around.” But the students’ lack of focus is precisely because they are not having fun. Fun is engagement. Fun is interested activity. Fun is very serious business.

It is an elementary school teacher’s job to create students who know how to have fun. We must graduate students who are ready, by they time they get to middle school, to have fun reading, and to find mathematics, science, and history as interesting and engaging as these subjects truly are. In my next post, I will suggest a few ways to do this.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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