“Fun” gets thrown around a lot vis-a-vis education: learning games, printables and educational apps promise fun, but what does that really mean? Playing games to celebrate the end of the school year can be a way to blow off steam, bond and take brain breaks; and there’s absolutely a place for that. But if we are talking about the kind of fun that translates into real learning, laughter can’t be the only measure of success.
For learning to be fun in a meaningful way, it can’t be a separate activity that gets tacked onto the lesson plan as a reward. If it’s not integrated, it conveys the message that you just have to hold your nose and get through the boring parts until it’s time for the fun activities to start.
At Prisma, this kind of integrated fun is known as ‘hard fun,’ a term coined by Seymour Papert concept that we define as, “the enjoyment that comes from being deeply absorbed in a challenging game, project, or activity.”
So what do we know about how children get absorbed?
First, throw the worksheets in the recycle bin. ‘Hard fun’ requires hands-on learning, where problem-solving happens in real time — sometimes without even realizing that they are gaining core skills in things like math, writing and science.
Second, let the student lead the way. When you customize learning to the students’ interests and abilities, you’re more likely to tap into their intrinsic motivation — that inner drive that allows us to push past any challenges because we genuinely want what’s on the other side.
Third, foster a growth mindset learning environment. Failure is no fun — but acquiring mastery is. Problem-solving happens best when students feel empowered to make mistakes and try again, not when we rush to correct them.
“Hard fun” propels students in ways that the traditional reward/punishment system fails to do. Author and lecturer on education, human behavior and parenting, Alfie Kohn, writes in the New York Times about a growing body of evidence that shows how people of all ages fail to respond to rewards in a meaningful way, producing less successful, less creative outcomes than people given no reward. Worse, when the rewards stop, so does any progress — which means that if you bribe your child to accomplish a task, they’ll grow dependent on that bribe.
On the flip-side, when students get deeply absorbed in an engaging activity, they naturally want to challenge themselves. It doesn’t occur to them to ask, ‘Why do we need to know this?’ They know exactly why they need to figure out how to bake the perfect loaf of bread, construct an indestructible tower, or debug a line of code. That kind of engagement pushes kids to develop critical thinking skills and build their resilience so that they push through whatever obstacle might emerge.
We see this every learning cycle at Prisma: Kids who claim to dislike traditional subjects change their tune when they approach them from the perspective of “hard fun.” Take a student who loves to bake — but never enjoyed math, writing, research and technology. When presented with the task of creating her own business to sell her baked goods, her passion led her to calculate her costs and profit margins, develop a website and draft her web copy. Suddenly math, reading, writing and research were part of her everyday routine — but without any of the resistance.
In early childhood, this could be as simple as letting them using their favorite toys as educational tools: you can challenge them to build the highest Lego tower or write their name in playdough. In elementary school, middle school, and high school, the same principle holds — you just need to adjust the level of challenge as they grow.
At Prisma, we’ve had students who love baking conduct science experiments in the kitchen. Starting from a working hypothesis about the impact of oven temperature or type of fat in a recipe, they verified—and revised—it by changing the variable and eating their results.
We’ve also seen kids light up when they use a tool like Minecraft in order to organize research they’ve learned in another context, for example, creating a museum exhibit based on a period of history with detailed labels inside the video game platform.
To feel that deep absorption where nothing else seems to exist in the world — flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — learners need extended periods of time.
Now think about a traditional classroom, where the bell schedule forces students to move onto the next activity, regardless of where they are in their educational experience — not very conducive to flow, right?
Kids who go to traditional school particularly need unscheduled time after school and on weekends to give them room for that kind of in-depth exploration. For homeschooling parents, take advantage of your flexible schedule and, if you build a lesson plan, make sure to allow for flexibility so that you don’t inadvertently preempt an ah-ha moment.
The same philosophy holds for the kids’ weekly schedule: some days, a kid might feel super motivated to do math but other days they might need to let their mind wander with their poetry. If a kid is in the zone, let them spend the entire day writing. They can always pick up their math project another day.
“Why do we have to know this?”
If a kid asks this question, it’s a pretty sure sign that hard learning isn’t taking place.
The best way to show kids the stakes of their learning is by finding educational activities that connect to the real world.
At Prisma, we like to foster authentic learning experiences by encouraging students to create the kind of media they like to consume. A kid who wilts at the thought of writing a five-paragraph essay might easily produce hundreds of words for their fan fiction novella or to update their favorite Wiki page. With all the new technologies available, song writing is another great way to encourage writing in kids who might not love poetry but are passionate about music.
When kids create something that has an authentic purpose, they’ll be inspired to throw themselves into a project. If you ask one kid to write a research paper for the teacher’s eyes only and ask another to write a letter to a politician or create a mini documentary advocating for a particular position, they’re developing the same academic abilities, but the first kid will be asking, “Why do I need to know this,” and the second kid will be having fun.
If learning activities stay confined to the classroom, students never get the benefit of engaging others around their ideas, which is key to developing their communication skills. But it’s also a profound source of satisfaction which often fuels a kid to dive back in and try again.
One of the major benefits of doing authentic projects is that they lend themselves to being shared: Kids who create documentaries can host a screening; and songwriters can give performances or launch an online release; it’s easy to invite a crowd of guests into a Minecraft museum exhibit.
At Prisma, we incorporate community-wide Expo Days into every learning cycle so that learners present their projects, field questions, and celebrate their accomplishments in front of their peers, parents, and coaches. These Expos mark the end of a learning cycle but often, just the beginning of a students’ career as a writer, entrepreneur, game designer or scientist. By the time they’ve completed a project, they’re hooked on the “hard fun” and ready to do it again.
There’s room for all kinds of fun in a child’s education, including carefree games that blow off steam, educational apps that build core competencies, and local field trips. But ‘hard fun’ is a philosophy, not an add-on. Informing every element of the learning environment, it makes children want to immerse themselves in it, giving their best.
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