Planning for Fun in Teaching and Learning | Steve Barkley

Planning for Fun in Teaching and Learning

The pondering for this blog began while I was on my daily walk, listening to a podcast from Dr. Laura Santos called the Happiness Lab (Laurie gets a Fun-tervention). Santos was joined by Catherine Price, author of The Power of Fun.

Their discussion of fun connected with conversations I had been having with instructional leaders concerning the weariness and stress that staff were expressing. Several leaders shared teachers’ responses to many discussions quickly moved to “not one more thing.” One superintendent had shared with me that no matter how he tried to convince staff that issues of student performance from learning loss or upcoming formal assessments were not being pressed by the district administration, the teachers’ stress remained. He shared that he tells staff to be calm and relax don’t worry about the next assessments, but he sees no positive impact on the teachers’ feelings.

I suggested that maybe it wasn’t about telling the teachers to be calm and relax but rather to refocus their goals and energies. I pointed the superintendent to an earlier blog and several podcasts I had done on reframing mindsets.  Two of the reframes that I thought especially fit were a refocus from hate to a “focus on love” and focusing on “long term rather than short term goals“.

Another way this discussion has emerged is when educators have talked about taking things off their plates. With more time available because something has been taken away or delayed, without prioritizing where our energy is being invested, stress may continue because energy is not focused on what’s most important. Part of deciding “what’s important in my mind is looking at the return on energy invested.” That return, I believe builds perseverance and decreases stress.

As I listened to Santos and Price, I wondered if some of the educator disillusionment might be connected to a lack of fun for teachers and learners. Their podcast and a blog, Ten Simple Benefits of Having Fun suggest that benefits of fun include:

  • Reduced stress that leads to increased productivity and creativity
  • Short- and long-term physical benefits from the reduction of cortisol levels
  • Improved social skills
  • The creation of new positive memories can help heal emotional wounds

Santos and Price identify three elements that are generally present in fun and therefore can be guidelines to plan for fun: playfulness, connection, flow. I believe these three elements can guide educators in planning for fun.


Teachers who find students engaged in “play while learning” will likely experience that students’ fun and playfulness generate fun for the teacher as well.

Mitchel Resnick from MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group provides this approach to play.

“When most people think about play, they think about fun and enjoyment. But when my research group thinks about play, we think about it somewhat differently. We think of play as an attitude and an approach for engaging with the world. We associate play with taking risks, trying new things, and testing boundaries. We see play as a process of tinkering, experimenting, and exploring. These aspects of play are central to the creative learning process.”

Look to bring increased tinkering, experimenting, exploring, and risk-taking into the school experience for students and staff.

“I think it is important for older students to see their teachers have retained passion, curiosity, and excitement, it is very childlike.”

– Madeleine Rogin (Podcast)


The importance of relationships has been stressed in our work with SEL components. When planning instruction to meet student learning outcomes, its important to consider the learning environment that will engage your students. Where is fun present? I addressed this topic in a book, Wow! Adding Pizzazz to Teaching and Learning.  Wow’s engage students with fun which is different from entertaining them. See a video on “WOWs here:

“A teacher’s impact on their students can last long after the end of the school year. After a student has a meaningful connection with their teacher, they’re more likely to form similar relationships in the future.”

Megan Varga

Coaching relationships should be increasing connections for teachers. It’s important now that instructional coaches and administrators become “coaches of coaching.” As teachers have increased opportunities to share their celebrations as well as learners’ struggles, connections are built with colleagues. Those shared experiences provide opportunities for fun.


“The state of flow is created by activities with a specific set of properties: they are challenging, require skill, have clear goals, and provide immediate feedback. The key to success here is setting challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for one’s abilities.” (PositivePsychology website)

Some benefits connected to flow: (The Psychology of Flow)

  • Greater enjoyment and fulfillment: People in a flow state enjoy what they are doing more. Because the task becomes more enjoyable, people are also more likely to find it rewarding and fulfilling.
  • Greater happiness: Research also suggests that flow states may be linked to increased levels of happiness, satisfaction, and self-actualization.
  • Greater intrinsic motivation: Because flow is a positive mental state, it can help increase enjoyment and motivation. Intrinsic motivation involves doing things for internal rewards.

Time is a requirement for flow to occur. Distractions interfere with flow opportunities. How can teachers create chunks of time for students to focus deeply on challenges?

Can we create “Wow challenges” that students can tackle in playful connections with classmates and the teacher? How do school leaders communicate encouragement and support for teachers to generate flow opportunities for themselves and their students? Are leaders making time to experience flow? When this happens more fun will be present.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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One Response to “ Planning for Fun in Teaching and Learning ”

  1. Sean Leatherwood Says:

    I was in attendance at your Leadership Class with MRESA on 6/21/22. You validated, taught, enlightened, and most importantly empowered me to be a better leader.

    I will be watching ALL of your podcasts and reading ALL your blogs. I agree and believe in everything your said!

    Thank you!

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