Playful classroom activities foster joyful learning experiences, according to educators and pediatricians

Hello again ChicagoNow readers!  I have chosen to fold the blog Gifted Matters into this new blog, Academic Ink-lings!  Once again, the focus will be on education, with the belief that learning is a joyful enterprise and that every student deserves to be challenged.  I hope you will read on and comment!!

A bit of background:

My dissertation was officially approved at the end of June, with a degree conferral during the next academic term. I was fortunate enough to spend all of July and part of August on summer break. On our last day of hiking in Park City, my husband drew me back into the academic world, showing me a Wall Street Journal article entitled “The Power of Play,” in which the authors emphasized “U.S. Schools should focus on joy in learning, not stress and standardized testing” (August 10-11, 2019).

“Sounds a lot like your dissertation,” my husband commented.

I had titled my dissertation the Case for Joy in Learning:  Teacher and Students’ Perceptions of Flow Experiences in Upper Elementary Classrooms. Play is directly relevant to my topic, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory. Essentially, flow is a state of mind in which the learner is so engaged in a balanced (skills are aligned with the challenge) task that she loses track of time and self, deeply enjoying and becoming immersed in her learning experience. The upper elementary students I studied not only enjoyed playful learning activities, they were proud of and excited by the learning process and their accomplishments.

Play on, upper elementary students!

In a nutshell, my findings are highly relevant for any teacher, student, or parent aiming to maximize joyful learning and inject a little play into the process.

Students’ felt most deeply engaged in tasks over which they had control and/or could be creative:

  • The fourth grade teacher turned a dry topic like the study of U.S. regions into the drawing of scroll-like creations, reflecting facts and student created images of regional landscapes, economies, politics, geography, and history.
  • The fifth grade teacher asked students to dress up as their favorite character in a book and participate in an integrated lesson: a character cocktail “whodunit” party.
  • The entire fourth grade participated in a Dahl-a-palooza story telling project, during which students role-played their favorite scene in a Roald Dahl book.
  • Over half of the students interviewed considered science to be more like play, loving simulating waves with jump ropes or building batteries; and
  • Games, music, and art were built into the classroom schedule as daily rituals (in addition to specials like music, art and gym).

Play electrified the teachers, too!

These teachers came alive as they taught! They fed into student enthusiasm, creating a synergy of enjoyment in learning. I watched daily as students, teachers and in one instance, the principal, danced and sang while engaged in lessons.

This playful, collaborative approach to learning teaches students how to make friends, work together, set boundaries, and organize. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also reported on the importance of play in the (early elementary) classroom, noting that “play is intrinsically motivated and leads to active engagement and joyful discovery” (Yogman, et al., 2018). * I say–“let playful activities ring throughout the hallways (and within classrooms) of every school.”

About a week ago, a colleague posted an article from the New York Times entitled, “We have ruined childhood.” ** Once again, the need for a return to play was emphasized and for good reason, as high stakes testing and standardization have definitely had a negative impact on our students and children.

But I don’t think we have not seen the demise of childhood–yet.

Play drives making connections and building relationships, too.

I believe that what I witnessed as part of my research is not entirely unique.  I believe that there is an underground of parents and teachers who want to make schooling more playful, exciting, and engaging and have taken steps to do so.  I know teachers who reach out before school begins to get to know their students.  Group dynamics have also been used to build student-teacher relationship.  Identifying shared interests in sports, art, and music also forge connections in the classroom.  I’ve seen student made murals and placemats on desks that reflect student interests, giving teachers insight on how to connect with and challenge students.

Fortuitously, sometimes relationship building happens by accident.  Take my own antics—I was teaching a cross-grade class on folktales and realized that I had left a book in my office. I was gone for about thirty seconds–long enough for my students to close and lock the door. As I tried the door, students roared in laughter. I waved, smiled, rolled my eyes, and finally gained entry. What came out of it? A terrific short story entitled “Teacher locked out” written by one of my students.

What if we had the courage to challenge the ethos of standardization by injecting some play into the curriculum? Maybe, instead of focusing on deficits in learning, all teachers and students should consider packing their senses of humor into their lunch boxes and finding space in the classroom for play and enjoyment.


*Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J. Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M. (2018). The power of play, American Academy of Pediatrics, 142(3). Retrieved on August 17, 2019 from http://

** Brooks, K. 2019, August 17. We have ruined childhood. New York Times. Retrieved on August 17, 2019 from http://www.newyorktimes.



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Tags: joy, learning, play

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