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Engaging Learners Through Humor And Play

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Part 1

Humanity is ever changing and over the past few centuries, we have gone through some dramatic transformations that have shaped our society as we know it. In his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink highlights this point as he relates humanity’s most recent changes to “a three-act drama.” “Act I, the Industrial Age” led by the production of factories and assembly lines, was followed by “Act II the Informational Age” led by the white collared, thinking professionals, which presently brings us into “Act III, the Conceptual Age”, led by the “creators and empathizers.” (Pink, 2006, p. 48) And it is in this “Conceptual Age” that Pink stresses the importance of necessary traits needed to succeed in these times. Pink refers to them as the 6 “senses”: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, Meaning.

While Pink’s book is largely used and accepted in the business sector, the applications and implications for educators are both clear and encouraging. So if we are to jump on board and become part of this new Conceptual Age, then it is essential for educators to promote these senses in order to prepare our students to become successful learners. While Pink’s senses are not listed in a hierarchy of importance, empathy and play are two senses that are extremely important, while sometimes even overlooked.

Emotions can run high in the everyday life of a student regardless of their age. Mix that with a set of mundane academic tasks and procedures and you have a recipe for failure. So, when students walk through their classroom doors, it is important that teachers help them feel safe, happy and comfortable. While promoting this type of setting isn’t always easy, it is paramount, and the place from which all learning will flow. Building good relationships is vital to a classroom’s success and an effective way to do so is by integrating humor. As Ed Dunkelblau, former president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor says, “Everyone in the school benefits when humor is part of the pedagogy. Humor builds a learning relationship through the joyful confluence of head and heart.”(Elias, 2015) As teachers attempt to reach their students, how much easier will it be when your students are positive and happy and actually enjoy coming to school? With all that competes for our students’ attention, knowing that they want to be a part of the learning environment is truly half the battle. Dunkelblau furthers this point when he says, “humor brings a sense of pleasure and appreciation and creates a common, positive emotional experience that the students share with each other and the teacher.” (Elias, 2015)

Not only is laughter something we all love to do, but it is also scientifically backed for its physical and cognitive benefits. As stated in the article, Humor, Laughter, and Those Aha Moments, it says, “For the past forty years, studies have shown that good, hearty laughter can relieve tension and stress; boost the immune system, by reducing stress hormones and increasing activity among immune cells and antibodies; and help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, by improving blood flow and blood vessel function.

Laughter and humor can be a tonic for the brain, as well. Triggering the brain’s emotional and reward centers spurs the release of dopamine, helping the brain to process emotional responses and enhancing our experience of pleasure; of serotonin, to buoy our mood; and of endorphins, to regulate our pain and stress and to induce euphoria.”(2010)

Playing around is not an activity that one might typically associate with learning. In fact usually, it as seen as the opposite. When a student is playing around, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a teacher to redirect them to get back on the task. Naturally, students have too much work to do in the span of one day, so the thought of having play time is out of the question. The sarcasm is intentional and obvious here and this mindset couldn’t be more antiquated. Research supports the promotion of play within the classroom. In Donna De La Cruz’s article, Why Kids Shouldn’t Sit Still, she quotes professor of family medicine, James F Sallis, who says, “Activity stimulates more blood vessels in the brain, to support more brain cells. And there is evidence that active kids do better on standardized tests and pay attention more in school.(De La Cruz, 2017)” Now, even though our soul goal is not to improve standardized test scores, what better way to get these students stimulated, than through play.

It’s no secret that children love to play, but educators need to see the value that play so clearly has for their students. In Dr. Peter Gray’s TEDX talk, he says, “Play is where children learn that they’re in control of their own life. Play is where they learn to solve problems and learn. Play is where they learn to get along with their peers and see from others points of view. Play is by definition, creative and innovative.”(Gray 2014)

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To further support play’s role in learning, Pink quotes physician, Madan Kataria, who says “ When you are playful, you are activating the right side of your brain. The logical brain is a limited brain. The right side is unlimited. You can be anything you want.” (Pink, 2006 p. 186) This is exactly the kind of thinkers that we are trying to promote in this new Conceptual Age; the kind that are creative, design oriented, and free. These are the kind of thinkers we can promote through humor and play.

Part 2

As our society has evolved, so too has technology. Our students have joined in this evolution and as a result have become very tech savvy. They have mastered the arts of navigating their iPads, subscribing to YouTube channels, and even playing games online with friends who live miles away. I am amazed at how digitally literate my four year old seems. He is not reading yet, but amazes both my wife and I as we watch him successfully navigate his way around our Apple Tv and tablet.

According to Pink “Half of all Americans over the age of six play computer and video games” (Pink, 2006, p.191)Love it or hate it, our students, from the primary grades up to the high school level are surrounded by screens, whether is be video games, shows or any form of social media. So because of all this, the need to connect and engage our students is at an all time high. Incorporating humor and play while utilizing technology is a great way to started.

In my K-6 school, we are aren’t quite one-to-one yet, but laptop carts and iPad carts are easy to come by. In fact, my class shares a Chromebook cart with another 3rd grade class, and fortunately for me it is stored in my room. Technology is something I try to regularly incorporate into my daily routine in some way, shape or form. The Web 2.0 tools available for teachers and students to use is seemingly endless, so the challenge is not necessarily having the resources, but deciding which ones to use effectively. One thing I’ve noticed about my students, is the need to keep the technology fresh. Even if the technology is fun and engaging, the interest level can dwindle when it is overused. So I must always remember to mix it up.

I especially like to introduce new topics or units with the help of technology. As my goal is to engage students and build their interest level, I have found a few particular websites that my students seem to enjoy due to their interesting and humorous attraction. BrainPop is a website that teaches students about a multitude of topics, while engaging them through a humorous animated narrative between a young guy named Tim and his robot, Moby. In the “About” section on their website, BrainPop, is described underneath the heading of “PLAYFUL” as having “Engaging learning games, animated movies, and activities. Designed with relevance, depth, and humor to encourage kids on their unique learning. I couldn’t agree more with this self assessment as my students are always excited to hear the infamous music associated with the beloved videos.

Another site that I discovered to have a humorous side while introducing skills is Study Island. Study Island is a wonderful site that provides aligned practice for students in Reading and Language Arts along with math and science. The humour is presented through animated skits put on by silly characters like, “Alexander Selkirk” and a talking tiki statue well-named “Tiki”. The ridiculousness and sillines of these characters helps the students to be engaged and attentive to whatever the newly taught skills might be. Not only does Study Island have some great lesson videos, but they also provide students with a “Game Mode” which gives them the option to play games once they have successfully answered a question. My students don’t seem to mind that they are practicing the skill of recognizing main idea as long as there is some game play involved.

Quite possibly my students favorite interactive site to use is Kahoot! As stated on Kahoot’s site, “Kahoot! is a game-based learning platform, free for teachers of awesome and classroom superheroes. Play, learn, have fun and celebrate together!” This is exactly what happens when students are engaged with Kahoot! Kahoot! will work with a variety of technological tools, including laptops, tablets, phones and computers, so when my students are able to pull out their own phones during instructional time, they are beyond thrilled. While playing, students are answering trivia-style, teacher-created questions related to the content being taught or reviewed. The fact that students are able to create their own nicknames that show up on a leaderboard throughout the session provides added incentive for students to do well. Everyone loves to guess who’s nickname belongs to who and also, which nickname their teacher might be using!

Engagement is crucial to our students’ success and yet at the same time it is one of the most difficult things we can hope to achieve. As we progress into this new Conceptual Age, the task will only become more arduous if we fail to connect with or lose our students. Year after year, we as teachers may not always reach every student or touch on every skill in our curriculum, but maybe by providing an environment that encourages laughter and play while also being engaging, challenging and also safe, we are setting our students up to be successful lifelong learners who are ready to tackle life outside of school in the “real world”.


  1. Brainpop
  2. De La Cruz, D. (2017, March 21) Why Kids Shouldn’t Sit Still in Class Retrieved from:
  3. Elias, M (2015, March 30) Using Humor in the Classroom Retrieved from:
  4. Gray, P. (2014, June) The Decline of Play. Retrieved from:
  5. Kahoot
  6. Pink, D. H. (2006) A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead.
  7. (2010, Vol. 16, No. 2) Humor, Laughter, and Those Aha Moments, Retrieved from:
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Engaging Learners Through Humor And Play. (2022, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 3, 2024, from
“Engaging Learners Through Humor And Play.” Edubirdie, 24 Feb. 2022,
Engaging Learners Through Humor And Play. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 Mar. 2024].
Engaging Learners Through Humor And Play [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 24 [cited 2024 Mar 3]. Available from:
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