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Fun Along the Way

By Bob Houghtaling

School is back in session. Hopefully you and your child(ren) are off to a good start. While we often hear talk about testing, a rigorous curriculum, standards, and accountability, let’s not forget one very important thing–fun.

All too often in our quest to prepare young learners for the future we forget to nurture their natural sense of wonder, excitement, and play. In fact, play often gets a bad rep. It is either relegated to being scheduled and over-organized, or reduced to a perfunctory mandate (like recess). Learning can, and should, be fun.

Many years ago the great point guard, Magic Johnson, infused enthusiasm into a semi-moribund team (the Los Angeles Lakers). After his team’s first victory of the year, the talented rookie leapt into the arms of Kareem Abdul Jabbar and hugged him. Overnight, the Lakers became a team to be reckoned with. Much of this had to do with Johnson’s talent, but more important, also his ability to help others enjoy their work. He made basketball fun.

If your child is not having fun in school this is something to be looked at. We often hear of kids staying up until the wee hours of the morning perseverating over a test or project. We also hear tales of young people feeling confused, or rejected, over their choice of colleges. Perhaps, even worse some feel less than for opting to work or join the military. This doesn’t sound like fun to me.

So, how can we make sure that kids are having fun at school? First of all it is important that we, the adults, recognize that a little fun is O.K. All too often the accouterments of success are considered success. Effective schools are caring and soulful places. They are more than test scores and mathematical rankings. They embrace and empower. They also recognize that social and emotional learning is essential to the entire educational process.

Parents can also play a key role in making school fun. Speaking with your children about school, communicating with teachers when necessary, and being a partner throughout the academic journey are key components of active participation. On top of these it helps to have realistic expectations. Understanding that children develop at different rates, have diverse talents and struggle with a host of out of school concerns (peers, family dynamics, world events, etc.) are also things parents should consider. Sometimes we limit fun and play to the realm of ‘goofing off’. While goofing off certainly has its place–fun and play can be serious business. Just watch children at play with building blocks, climbing a tree, role playing or interacting with peers and you will see that there is a lot of ‘seriousness’ going on. There is nothing wrong with enjoying your work. There is nothing wrong with having fun while learning about or addressing a difficult challenge. And finally, there is nothing wrong with telling young people that it is fine to try new things and risk making a mistake (or two, or three). That’s how we learn. Mistakes of learning should not be terrifying for those courageous enough to make them. In fact, they should be encouraged.

Mindfulness has become an increasingly discussed and utilized strategy in helping people to reduce stress as well as remain in the moment. Many therapists and instructors have adopted it as a common practice. Young children having fun are some of the most mindful people around. When they are having fun, or are engaged with play, mindfulness is on full display. It is difficult to experience excitement and joy without being fully present.

As we continue to explore the importance of being mindful, let us also look at how vital play and fun are to the human condition. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with all of the ‘what-to-do’s’. Perhaps slowing down, gaining perspective, and having some fun, just might be an elixir. Fun is something we should be mindful of.

So, let us make sure that learning has plenty of room for fun. Twenty years from now few of today’s school age youth will remember their test scores or school’s ranking. What they will remember is the experience of school. Teachers who challenged them, peers who made them laugh, and an embracing environment are what most will recall (or miss). How best do we make this happen? Let’s begin by saying that school can be fun. From there it is something we all must put into play.