Learning vs. play
Where did kids get the idea that school was not fun? That learning was not fun?
A couple of weeks ago I was interviewing another teacher’s student for a proficiency assessment and I asked about school. He said that he liked learning but didn’t like school. Isn’t that sad? Well, maybe it’s not. I actually told him that school wasn’t like life, and aspects of life like happiness and success are very friendly to people who love to learn. I told him that I hoped the next year, his last year in school, would pass quickly, and he could enjoy what came beyond, the life of learning.
Why doesn’t he like school? When did we accept the idea that school is tedious and discouraging? Where did we buy into such a message? Well, from everybody. We got it, too. We got it from Calvin and Hobbes, from Charlie Brown, from business leaders and talk show hosts. At best school is presented as a tool to endure and manipulate to get what you want and at worst it’s a purgatory you have to survive until you can get out.
We have an opportunity every day to change this message. Let’s change it! To start, let’s play! Let’s call the playtime vs. learning time dichotomy what it is: a lie. Let’s believe and champion that playtime and learning time should not be different.
Learning through play
As young children develop, they learn through play. Why should older students be any different? Here are some reasons we should be playing:
- Play creates attention, and attention creates long-term memory.
- Play gets students moving, and movement creates long-term memory.
- Play stimulates more senses and sensory stimulation creates long-term memory.
Guidelines for play
Sometimes this looks like chaos, but it should be anything but random. It’s frustrating to attend a conference session on games and get a grab bag of ideas for filling class time with games that get kids thinking up a word that starts with B (in others words, not communicating anything). So how do we play and learn at the same time?
Align play to your goals
Even when I choose a seemingly random activity to infuse some fun in class, it usually applies to what we’re working on at the time. If not, it at least applies to a proficiency goal we’re working on, like using idiomatic expressions.
Your goals might be to preview a theme, review a theme, recycle key vocabulary in light of a coming activity or assessment, process authentic resources, or work on a proficiency skill like narration.
Require communicative language
Nothing’s more useless in a language class than an activity, fun or otherwise, that takes up a lot of time but requires little to no language. I’m all for coming up with creative uses for Play Doh and drama, but let’s keep the communicative language flowing. Also, avoid games and activities that require students to come up with discrete words apart from meanings. Bad crossword puzzles and word searches (what’s the communicative function of a word search, please?) are no substitute for real communication.
This isn’t to say that fun can’t be spontaneous. I’m still thinking of all the ways you could modify Carrie’s motivating, spur-of-the-moment Oscar award idea, El bigote.
Spontaneous or not, let’s fill our classrooms with learning that is fun rather than competes with fun! Then share your great ideas with the rest of us. Speaking of ideas, browse the recent Langchat summary on tips for a more successful and fun language class. Here’s a recent game I’d never heard of, from Brian Kandel, using a fork to practice listening skills. You can also browse through my communicative activities tag, which includes a nine-part series on fun activities I gleaned and tweaked from several sessions at Central States.