Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fun and learning

Someone on one of the TP message boards was claiming that playing learning games like Bingo and making other attempts to "make learning fun" eventually leads to educational underachievement and failure, and the loss of any work ethic. The claim was that "fun" and "learning" are two different things, that learning is grunt work that you do first, and fun is what can result afterwards when you've finished with the learning.

I disagree strongly with this dichotomy. My kids have learned tons while engaged in pursuits that are fun. The hard work of learning can be instrinsically enjoyable, particularly when it is being done in a context that is meaningful to the child and led by the child's desires and interests. In the past three weeks Noah has learned to build websites from scratch using HTML and javascript code. He learned by doing, and he had a blast. Learning is not necessarily a bitter pill that has to be swallowed in order to get to the fun stuff later.

I think an important issue was being raised, though. In a nutshell when we assume that learning is a bitter pill, and thus we always sugar-coat with games and gimmicks it to make it palatable, we risk doing three things. First we risk distracting our kids from the fact that they're learning. I think it's important for kids to be aware of the learning they're doing, because it helps them see the deeper value in what they're doing and to get a sense of accomplishment from it. Second, we are implicitly sending the message that "no one in their right mind would want to do this work without the sugar-coating on it." Or that "learning is inherently distasteful, and needs to be dressed up as something else." It's not, as I pointed out in my paragraph above, though many people grow up thinking that it is thanks to their experiences in school and elsewhere. Thirdly, we can create the educational equivalent of sugar junkies, kids who become dependent on the entertainment value of the fun and games and simply can't maintain their focus or attention without the gimmicks.

I believe that good education uses games and gimmicks judiciously so as to avoid the three risks I outlined. Using them sometimes, when they're an extra tool needed to help a learner over a hump, is just fine, in my book, though it helps if the learner is complicit in the decision to opt to use them. And I believe that good education focuses on the thing Noah had when learning HTML -- a meaningful context for the learning and a child-led interest-based pathway to and through it. With those things in place children will appreciate the intrinsic value of learning -- and enjoy it, without all the window-dressing. Learning will not be disguised in fun, it will be fun in and of itself.


  1. well, I taught all my kids phonics with alphabet bingo and they are all avid readers...

  2. This is a really good post.

    I have struggled with the attitude that N. picked up in school that there can be nothing fun and exciting about learning. As we have moved toward unschooling, N. seems to be changing his mind. He is beginning to understand that there can be joy and delight in learning challenging things.

    Thanks again for this uplifting post. It will calm a lot of fears.

  3. Anyone who thinks learning can't be fun obviously hasn't watched babies and toddlers learning about their world...

    Nice post!

  4. Some good insight here. I think a lot of it is also age-dependent. My son is 4 and a sit down lecture does not work. He will outright disregard anything I try to teach. So at this point, most of what I teach is in some form of game. I think as he gets older though and has a bit more attention span, we can maintain some fun but pursue learning more in a straight-forward way.


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