The power of play

Remember that story about Einstein forgetting how to tie his shoelaces so he could remember to work out how the universe works? Remember when you left school at 16 and could do quadratic equations, remember the Periodic Table and quote Dickens? It’s amazing how knowledge that seems to take forever going in falls out remarkably quickly.

It’s only been a little over 18 months since I finished my CELTA and started teaching, and other than a spell of a couple of months between countries, I’ve been working constantly since. And yet… today I recalled Basic Lesson No. 1 from that glorious training ground, the Kamala tiki hut classroom in Ecuador paradise.

Make learning fun.

So simple, so effective, so elusive, so easily forgotten.

In my first job, directly after leaving Kamala, I was working in elementary schools in a very deprived region in the Ecuadorian Amazonas. Working with children who are under privileged, under educated and under 10 means fun is easy to instigate, easy to manage and the results are easy to see very quickly. In my nominal role as Assistant Volunteer Coordinator, I even put a couple of rudimentary training workshops together for other volunteers on the program, making sure I included lots of fun activities there too.

My first paying job in a language institute also included lots of fun role-plays, lots of bits of coloured paper with words to match, phrases to correct or questions to ask. Even when I went in to business teaching and private classes, my plans always had wads of pictures or coloured paper tabs copiously pinned around the edges. So why, when I entered a school to take up my most recent position, did all the fun stop?

I guess one answer is time. As I recently read on another teacher’s blog, the Seven Ps were something I’d worked out early on when it came to classroom management. I was only just managing to cobble together cohesive lessons for each class, let alone strips of paper, grass skirt games, sentence jumble strips and anything else that bumped, whizzed, beeped or glittered. I had also decided that ‘games’ should be a treat for classes who did the concentrating bit of the class right. A class that doesn’t shut up and can’t sit down for long enough to listen to instructions shouldn’t get to play the King’s Keys or Wink Murder – that’s common sense, I told myself.

So for three months, my ‘good’ classes have been getting better and better. They behave and get through all the work, and in return they get interesting warmer activities and fun things to do whenever there’s room in the class and I have time to find appropriate materials. One class now turns up expecting that if they work really hard I’ll play a Mr Bean video again; a fun guessing activity we did to practise the future simple and future with ‘going to’. They’re a dream to teach.

Likewise, a group who started the year with a short story writing assignment which involved a lot of fun games and activities in their composition class time in order to get the creative juices flowing are now super focused in nose-in-the-book activities as they know there is fun to be had at other times.

What I hadn’t recalled, until today, despite recent workshops, conferences and conversations with other teachers, is that fun shouldn’t be a reward. In secondary education, you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! What could have been a boring lesson on punctuation with one of the most restive, easily distracted and lowest achieving groups I teach was turned into a miracle of cooperation and effective teamwork through the medium of a simple grass-skirt race; a one-a-day stalwart of CELTA courses everywhere. A class who last week earned a whole-group lunchtime detention for lack of attention and general rowdiness, this week earned four Merits and even the two lowest achievers completed 80% of the follow-up writing task correctly. Great for them, great for me. A glorious end to a usually dire day.

The moral of the story is…

Bring on the Fun.


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