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Problems with the "Learning Must Be Fun Approach" to Education

© Beverley Paine

I don't overly like the 'learning must be fun' approach popular in mainstream education and promoted by the commercial educational market. The movement to make learning fun was, and continues to be, based on sound educational research. Children do learn when they are having fun. There is no doubt about that. Nothing has changed. The problem stems from the corruption of the basic ideas at work. Children learn very effectively when they are playing, but that is because the play is owned and controlled by them, not something they have to do for some external purpose.

The idea that the innate fun and intense motivation that accompanies play can be turned to educational advantage captivates most adults, but especially educators. Perhaps this is because education is becoming tailored more to entertaining children, keeping their interest levels high in the face of the deterioration of more traditional ways of managing classroom behaviour, such as forcing children to pay attention by threats of violence or ridicule. Children today appear to be more sophisticated than in past decades, and are tuned into wanting rapid gratification through years of watching television, advertisments, computer and video games. And most of them no longer fear the authority of adults.

There is a lot of difference between being entertained and having fun. Entertainment is quite often a passive exercise, whereas having fun requires activity. Having fun is created by the player, whereas entertainment is created by someone else for the player. Children have the most fun when they are creative. This is why many of the educational games, toys and learning aides do not attract sustained attention by children. They are used once or twice then ignored. I know, my shelves are full of such things!

By watching my children over the years I have learned that if I want to make an educational aide to help teach a lesson in any subject then the best way to approach it is to get the children involved in the designing and making it the game. This activity provides the most fun, and playing the game when it is finished is more satisfying. But once again, even if the lesson is not fully learned, the game is soon abandoned.

The best educational games are those children naturally engage in. Dress-ups, cubby building, imaginative play (dramatic role playing), playing with miniatures (role playing with little cars, Lego, dolls, train sets, etc) provide so much opportunity for adults to extend the learning, not by controlling or directing the play, but by extending the props - carefully introducing elements that stretch the mind in directions the adult would like the child to go. The adult can introduce enriching and extending activities as well, so long as they fit in with the overall play theme, and are endorsed and accepted by the players. Children love this kind of input.

But it is very difficult for schools to implement this kind of playful curriculum. Educators have found that injecting 'play' into the curriculum is time consuming. Converting dry lessons into imaginative games of exploration and wonder takes real talent. If you opt for a truly playful curriculum, giving children some autonomy to direct and control their play and learning, you have to be really clever to see the links to the 'academic' achievement. Parents demand this information. Most parents need to see a book or work sheet with red markings across the student's work to believe the child is learning. Most teachers beyond pre-school level are not trained to see the learning inherent in play and are incapable of offering such a curriculum.

A playful curriculum in a school setting is an expensive one. Even putting aside the consideration of retraining teachers, learning programs that stimulate play and enhance learning are resource rich. Few schools can afford to provide props and materials for all the children to engage in play. In an era of economic rationalism such costs are not seen as efficient - hence the push back to much cheaper methods of learning popular in earlier eras, the back to basics and testing approach to education, accompanied by a down playing of important research that clearly points the way to quality educational experiences.

Add to this the further consideration - are the educational games and playful learning programs learning efficient? Wouldn't it be better to adopt some accelerated learning techniques into classrooms, or some Educational Kinesiology tricks?

In view of the difficulty in implementing truly playful opportunities in education educators and manufacturers turn to the next best thing - games, toys and programs designed to entertain or provide fun to the player. One unfortunate result is that nearly all toys and books for children are now 'educational' in some sense or other. Most parents feel guilty if the toys they bought their children for Christmas don't 'teach' something! I have found that those things my children do merely for fun, and the toys and games they are attracted to, are those ones not meant to 'teach', but nevertheless my children do learn many things from them. I have learned to articulate those learnings in educational jargon, in order to reassure myself that all of my children's activities are education.

There is a more compelling reason why I dislike the trend to make education 'fun'. Play is the domain of the player, the child. It should not be manipulated for the 'sake' of learning. Invasion of play space can be damaging to the child. I have no evidence to support this. I just feel it to be true. When we play we do so because of our own inner drive to learn. We are not aware of what it is we are learning - the object is enjoyment, not learning. We play to stretch ourselves, find ourselves. We play only when we are in control. The minute someone begins to control the direction of the play we move into a stage of negotiation, of social bartering. The essential element of pure enjoyment and selfishness is lost. The sense of spontaneous fun has changed. When we play we are not on a schedule to achieve this or that, or know this or that, or understand this or that, at any particular rate or time.

Children need to play and learn in natural ways. Society doesn't allow that anymore, locking children away for most of the day, for most of their childhood, in schools and classrooms devoid of many of the things children naturally like to make games out of.

Children don't learn because they are playing games and having fun. They don't play games to learn and have fun. They play games because it is the way they learn to survive. Just like a kitten, or a bear. Games and playing prepare them for adult life. And while they are playing they are becoming more competent at all the skills they will need as adults. It isn't a conscious choice. Children play whenever their environment allows them to. Play is nature's way of ensuring they learn. In school, in lessons disguised as play, often as educational games, children learn because they have to - they have no choice. It is not a natural development in their lives. It is contrived and forced. .

The best way to be around kids is to be playful yourself. Make play an important part of your personal life. Develop playful attitudes to many of the things you do. Start playing a game, and invite them if they show interest. Collect patterns, leaves, shells, etc and play with them. Do some art, some craft. Build something. Use repetition and patterns. Allow your creativity to flow. Use mathematical terms to describe, in a casual and non contrived way, what you are doing. Don't talk to anyone in particular - develop self talk. Kids just love that. They can listen and learn passively and then - whammo suddenly they are interacting, and you are hearing all these new words....

Developing a playful curriculum at home is easy, because having fun is infectious, especially if the intention is enjoyment, rather than some prescribed lesson. Fostering an inquiring and open mind, one that joyfully explores all the environment and our culture has to offer is a sure way to have fun while learning.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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Welcome to the World of Home Education
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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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