Melissa Moultroup, a sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher in the Hillsboro-Deering School District, in New Hampshire, led a Learning Lab on Sunday morning at the 2023 ASCD Annual Conference in Denver, asking educators to reflect on a time they remembered having fun in school as a student.
Moultroup, a doctoral student at New England College, shared how asking this question of the five other students in her cohort revealed a surprising truth: that three out of the five couldn’t recall a time when they had experienced fun as a student in school.
“That is not OK,” she and her colleagues told each other that day, Moulder said.
She cited Glasser’s Choice Theory, which identifies five basic human needs: survival, love & belonging, power, freedom and – last but not least – fun.
“So I see this as permission,” she said. “If I’m not providing fun for my students, I’m not meeting one of their basic needs. And I’m also not meeting one of my basic needs,” she added.
Fun leads to learning
Reflections by educators in the room suggested that fun in school sometimes happens outside of the regular content and academics and often includes elements such as movement, comfort, relationship building and connection.
“Last year was the hardest year I have ever had by far as a teacher, and I think for many of us,” Moultroup shared. But a schoolwide field trip for snow tubing one afternoon in January provided a much-needed boost for students as well as teachers, she said.
“We didn’t talk about academics. We didn’t talk about the science of snow. We didn’t talk about physics,” Moultroup shared. “We just had fun….We ate pizza. We played board games. We hung out and we talked to each other and we connected,” she said.
“And I have to tell you, at the end of that school year, I have never felt more successful as an educator. Because that day completely flipped me personally – my attitude – but also the attitude of the kids.”
Moultroup acknowledged that there were other factors contributing to the improvements students made that year, but noted: “When I think about one particular event or one moment in time, it was racing down the hill on the snow tubes when they turned into learners.”
Engage the senses, activate the brain
Brain science supports the need for fun in school, Moultroup shared. Our senses must be engaged for the Reticular Activating System and the amygdala to receive, sort and pass information through to the prefrontal cortex. And dopamine, created in the brian stem – the same place that new learning begins – is associated with pleasure, intrinsic motivation and even perseverance, Moultroup noted.
Making fun happen in class
Moultroup offered some suggestions for incorporating fun – Ideas that can be implemented as part of classroom learning or as part of a schoolwide event.
For the classroom, Moultroup shared four questions she uses to spark fun discussions with students:
- Is it OK to break the rules if it is for a good reason?
- Is this conflict necessary?
- In what ways can someone’s disability be an advantage?
- Can secrets be dangerous? Why or why not?
Fun in the classroom can also be centered around a “guess the image” game or a “mystery box” containing items that are symbols from a lesson being taught or a book being read, Moultroup said. Students can then collaborate to play 20 questions about the item in the box, she added.
Schoolwide fun ideas
Other strategies used at Moultroup’s school bring together the whole campus:
- Organizing a whole day centered around a single subject
- A Quest Day, where all students pursue a daylong activity from a list of “quests” created by teachers and based on their interests
- An ABC Day, rewarding students who have an A, B or C average
Moultroup explained that an ABC Day also provides an opportunity for students who may be falling outside of those standards to get the extra time or help they need to get back on track. Then, in the afternoon, everyone participates in a whole-school fun event. At Moultroup’s school, previous ABC Day events have included visits from a sled-dog team and, of course, snow tubing.
The benefits of these schoolwide activities extend beyond the fun had in the day itself as students from across the middle school’s three grades get to form new connections with each other and with teachers they’ve yet to work with, as well as reconnect with teachers they’ve worked with in the past, Moultroup noted.
Permission to make time for fun
Moultroup’s session employed a number of the strategies being suggested, and included opportunities for educators to “share and steal” ideas for infusing their schools with fun. In wrapping up, Moultroup reminded educators to take the time to put the ideas into practice.
“If you’re a teacher, I’m giving you permission to take liberties, to take a pause and take a break for fun.”
Katharine Haber is an editor for SmartBrief Education, covering trends and issues in the K20 market.