Sandy Spring Friends School



Gnu Stories Podcast | Episode 4: Infusing Fun into Learning

Gnu Stories Podcast | Episode 4: Infusing Fun into Learning

LISTEN: With stress and anxiety levels raised, fun is more critical than ever. Join Rodney as he speaks with Jenai Bell (Cross-Divisional Learning Specialist Admin. Assistant), Joel Gunzburg (LS Counselor), and Shannon Needham (Upper School Learning Specialist) to discuss the importance of fun for learning, community building, and stress-relief and how they are infusing fun into everyday activities. 

READ/WATCH: The content below highlights portions of the podcast discussion.


When some people think of fun, they think of silliness and play in sor of a non-educational setting. Where is it that fun lives in the academic work of our students?

Based on mind-brain education, or MBE-informed research, we know that memory, attention, and engagement are all critical for long-term learning to take place. All are important pieces for learning, but where fun generally comes in is at the point of engagement. Fun and play are sparks for creativity, innovation, passion. These three things are necessary pieces to help motivate everybody to learn.

Jenai:...In school, some of the lessons that I remembered best were fun. If a teacher broke the class into groups and had us play Jeopardy, that was an age-appropriate way to create a little competition because you know, we all want to win. ..Also,I think that play lowers the stakes in the classroom environment. ...It makes it feel safer to make mistakes. And making mistakes is also an important part of the learning process. Because making a mistake, and being able to identify where that mistake was made, and [then being] able to correct or fix it, also helps with your recall process in the future.

Shannon:  The memory piece is huge for me. If it’s fun and funny, you're much more likely to remember it.  I think the safe-space part [is important] too. ...The ability to make mistakes and to play with mistakes, to play with things that didn't go [the way] we thought they were going to go, to laugh about it a little bit. So  if you're laughing about it, then you're like, “Oh, no, what happened here?” And then you're actually using a lot of critical thought. The use of humor requires critical-thinking [due to] to be able to then break down… “Why was this funny? Why didn't this work?” You're enhancing the learning process, as opposed to taking away from it.

Joel: One of the points that I think was really the whole sphere of the person who's learning-- and the learner is not only getting comfortable with the growth-mindset of making mistakes, but just being able to be comfortable with making a mistake, and being safe in a space to do that. ...Thinking about the youngest learners, when they've learned their colors, and once they know their colors [you] can hold up a blue object and say “hey, look at this, it's red.” And to be able to get them to correct you and look at the silliness and laugh with you...promotes that baseline of ‘everybody can make mistakes,’ and there's a space where this can be fun and enjoyable.

Rodney: Y'all had me thinking about so many connections, and one of them is--so many of the early learning theorists and really the seminal ones that we still use, talked about... learning as a social endeavor, and the importance of social contacts. And also that when we learn something, and we recall it, the emotions around the context of how we learned it are also recall. So I'm wondering if fun doesn't also just continue to last and play out throughout our lifetime. When we learn that color where we associate fun with it, that becomes sort of a lifetime pattern in the brain, right? 

when we're talking about fun in this academic setting, what do we mean? How do we help folks understand when we say fun in this way? What does that look like? 

Joel:...If you go into a classroom, and you've got, say, 10 different kids, you may have seven different versions of fun. So I think it's part of it's knowing your audience and what you do with that fun.. Shannon mentioned humor, that's a huge part of my approach in learning is the ability to connect through humor. But also, it could be a lesson that has some sort of competition to it, it could be a lesson that is fun in the sense that you're talking about things that you normally wouldn't talk about in a class. 

Coming in as a counselor to teach the class that I teach, it's a lot different than having to get certain content, and I can come from a different angle than a teacher can. And I feel like that one thing that I like to do is to just to make it a little bit different than what normally might happen in a classroom. 

Shannon:[It's] funny Rodney, because I was thinking about this last night, because as I was trying to think of what was fun for me. [I thought] well, how would I define this for myself? And my first thoughts were things that incite joy. But then as I thought through things that are fun to me, I also kept coming up with things that bring a great deal of contentment for me... So not the big sense of like --Woohoo!-- but more... it centers me, it makes me feel good. Not necessarily in a really outward way, but more of an inward way. 

I think Joel mentioned novelty and the power of that.. inciting joy. And that's the go to for me too. But I think there's also the sense of the quiet giggle or...when we smile to ourselves because there's something that's just connected to us. That's a great deal of fun, too.

Jenai: When I was in school, I was a huge theater kid. And so fun for me was when my classes kind of incorporated the arts. I remember in college… there was a class about neuroscience-- and [my teacher] had us act out the process of a cell firing of a neuron firing. So that was so much fun to me, because she gave us costumes... a K for the protein that was in flexing the cell. And any time a teacher would say... record a commercial for this, or write a song about this, or a monologue about this, I always thought those were fun techniques. And I enjoyed them.

Rodney: What I love about that example, too, Jenai is we often think that fun is something reserved for the Lower School, right? And we know that play in the Lower School is an important part of learning, like role playing,interacting with the world, and understanding play with others. But sometimes we don't see the Middle and Upper School as connected to that. 

And so I appreciate your example, in terms of fun as a preschool to 12th grade--and a lifelong--endeavor. 

Today’s world, which is so complicated, and frankly, not very fun right now as we are in the midst of a pandemic and in the midst of tense political and societal tensions. What can the role of fun at a school play in terms of helping students understand, and also cope with, the world we're living in?

Shannon: I had a good friend of mine who posted something recently from her Buddhist practice. It was a great quote that [said] that now is the time to fight for indestructible happiness. And I just loved that framing.  It was both things, right? It's not one/or, it's this/and. 

[Students] didn't choose this time to be in school, they didn't choose this pivotal moment in their education. So as educators, and people who are connected to children, I feel like we are somewhat obligated to both foster this indestructible happiness while being in the fight in order to provide for them those joyful and connected moments as they learn.

Joel: There's something to be said about mindfulness at this moment...I think when you think about mindfulness, that means a lot of different things to different people. You say the word mindfulness and somebody might just go to relaxation. And I think this is the perfect space of being mindful of how you feel, what things make you feel a certain way, and when we're in the midst of turmoil, starting to build that resilience.

This is an opportunity to say, "Okay, well how are we feeling at this moment? Okay, now this can change." I think of our youngest learners, and what they know and what they don't know in these spaces. But just the ability for others to model for them that this is going to be okay, we're gonna keep working "in the midst of." It takes a lot of practice and being able to have conversations about that. 

[In] the Lower School, we spend a lot of time with mindfulness focusing on the five senses, and how that affects certain things. So, if you're feeling a certain way--maybe you're feeling sad today--well, what do we do with sadness? Can you use a mindful pause in this moment? Those are all things that we can continue to give the skills. ..It's kind of saying, "Hey, this is what we're dealing with. And this is what the next step is, as we go and giving them some tools."

Rodney: So, I'm hearing a more nuanced definition of fun, right? Fun as joy. Fun is laughter and silliness. Fun as connection. Fun as belonging. Fun as comfort. Fun as a manifestation of the deeper relationship between student and teacher. Fun is knowing each other and knowing how we work, and knowing what we need to relax and be mindful. Fun as resilience. And so this is a really important conversation, I think, in terms of where education is going and the innovation, and the inclusion of fun. But I feel like we've been doing this for a while that Sandy Spring Friends School. You know how research often lags behind practice. 

What examples do you have, right here at school, where you can recall fun being so deeply connected to the learning?

Shannon: Programmatically, from looking at the way that we've structured our school year this year, [we’ve placed an] emphasis on the social pods, and getting students together in those connected spaces. ...If we have to choose when to put students together, we're going to choose that time for them to connect and to have fun. ...I know that in the Upper School, some of the advisory activities we're planning for those social pods really are about getting the students to just connect to one another and have a little fun play together in the way that Upper School students will play

Watch: Joel shares an example of a fun meditation he offers during his SHINE class

What's the role of fun in the teacher community?

Jenai: This is honestly something I'm still trying to figure out. ...Being on Zoom for a long time throughout the day can be exhausting. But then I still want opportunities to connect with my coworkers. So for me, I guess I just tried to limit how many zooms I schedule in a day so that... I can get my work done, and I can also connect with other people.

...Even with our All-School Meeting for Business (ASMFB), or each individual Meeting for Business in each division, I kind of like it when we take a moment to connect at the beginning or at the end of our meetings. I know that we've been doing those "chatter-fall," little games in the ASMFB, and I really enjoyed that, because I get to see where other people are, and I get to express how I'm feeling. 

Shannon: I'm thinking back to like, everybody has a different interpretation of fun, and sometimes forced fun is not fun, right? So it's a careful balance. But I know that I've..[been] using the Quaker practice of having a "moment of silence" and adding to that a moment of fun. And an example of that...I found an amazing deck of cards--I've really started to like these decks of cards that people create, that have different themes, lessons, or prompts on them. And one that I found recently to be really helpful. It's called mixtape, and it gives you scenarios, and then everybody in the group picks a song that matches that scenario. 

So one of the things that I did one of our early [Upper School Admin Meeting] had everyone in our admin meeting respond to one of those prompt cards with a song in the chat, but only to me privately. And then I took all those songs, and I created a Nearpod matching game. So, in the next meeting, we played the matching game, and I asked the members of the admin to identify the song that their colleagues had picked for that scenario. So we tried to match the person to the song. And then I also created a Spotify playlist of all of our admin team songs that we had picked for that. So it lasted over several different meetings. And it was intended to just be kind of that start point, much like the moment of silence is. Also a little bit of fun as well, just to kind of shift everybody into a lighter headspace. Because, what I see as we get into the school year--and as we get into the 20 Zooms a day--as our humor, and our ability to be light decreases, so does our creativity. And so I feel like any way that we can kind of nudge each other back into that space is valuable.

Rodney: Now you're speaking about cognitive load, and Jenai reminded us earlier about amygdala hijack, where how much can your brain really take in if it's a brain under stress or under duress of fun also releases tension from the balloon so that it can expand even more, it is really important. 

Watch: Rodney, Jenai, Joel, and Shannon play a round of mixtapes and enjoy a moment of fun together.

Learning and fun go well together, and connection. How can parents do this at home with their kids? How can parents take fun, and also infuse some learning into it in the home setting? And we know in this period, parents are much more involved in the education of their kids, and looking for ways to do it where it doesn't feel as heavy, right? Where still maintains the fun of home for students. What tips do you have to pass on that?

Shannon: It's kind of cool, because Joel, Jenai, and I, our children are all in very different stages. So I think it's kind of a cool peek into the developmental nature of the answer to that question.

Joel: ...One of the things that I've been suggesting is do things that are different, whether that's getting out into nature, just because we're inside so much. If you can, in a safe way, get out to nature and doing some stuff as a family. ...You could be engaging in some of the electronics that they've been playing with, maybe creating that Roblox account to play with your kids and enjoy some of the stuff that they're doing.

I'm [also] thinking about parents having fun for themselves...when the kids go to sleep, what is it that [parents] are doing for themselves to make sure that they're recharging the batteries?

I think that goes back to when we talk about the definition of fun, I think that it's going to range from family-to-family as to what people want to engage in. But making space for it, I think, is really, really important in these times.

Shannon: I think Joel's point about self-care is so important. you know, tapping into like, maybe even before there were children in the house, what was fun? What did you laugh at? What did you do? What are ways you can tap into that, whether it's watching something on Netflix, or having a conversation with a friend who you know will make you laugh.  

I have children who are in college and then a middle schooler, and so I've really delighted in their sort of blossoming adult humor. In the time that they were home, my daughter just started putting sticky notes of memories from our quarantine time together on my cabinets. And one of the cabinet doors is completely covered now, because we all just started adding to it. And then occasionally, somebody will stop and just read from them. And so I think those spontaneous things are really important. 

Joel mentioned, letting the kids lead. I think that's, you know, kind of watching what are your children doing to have fun and then joining in, or adding to it, and kind of fanning the flames of that excitement and that play. 

And I would say that having little dance parties and doing silly things--I think the kids will roll their eyes at you if they're teenagers, and that's fine. But the truth is that sometimes they're having a blast. And what we know---those of us who work with teenagers all the time is like--the eye-rolling is often followed by like a little grin or chuckle... I think they know this in our residential program, where some of the activities-- they've got kids tie dyeing, they've got kids doing things that you might associate with younger students---but the kids are excited to do it. ...They're excited to engage with that playful part of themselves. And so, not being afraid as adults to throw something out there and fail with your kids in the name of play.

Jenai: ...I have an 18 month old or one-and-a-half year old. So for him imaginative play is just beginning to emerge. And so a lot of the fun that we partake in is pretending. And so he has discovered cell phones. And anytime he has a phone, he'll just pick it up. And he can't say hello yet, but he'll say like the "dae", and then he'll just have a whole conversation with--I don't know who he thinks he's talking to--but whoever, they're having a great conversation. 

...A lot of the things that we're doing now is buying him toys that will help him to extend his imagination. So pots and pans so he can pretend to cook... Some of the things are real, too, like instruments. So he can drum or play on a keyboard. ...I like this age range, where they start to imagine, pretend,  and play and begin to play. 

Rodney: Such great examples. In listening to them and thinking about a term we haven't caught out yet, which is fun as experiential learning, and that a part of fun is also experiencing and imagining and reimagining the world. And then there's some modeling, that also builds on that. I heard that in your discussion about parents modeling for their kids the permission to have fun, and different ways that fun could look, and how fun extends through your life narrative. It's just so important. 

If there was one thing that you wanted to make sure that people heard on this podcast today about fun...what do you want to make sure people heard today about this topic of fun in the educational lives of ourselves and our students?

Shannon: I think just the awareness that fun is central to being healthy, and to the learning process. And so, prioritizing fun is a good use of time.

Joel: ...Oftentimes, we can be in a space---regardless of whether Lower, Middle or Upper School--[where] we're looking for best results possible, which can create pressure. And finding ways to reduce that pressure gets better results. 

...Connection is so important. And I feel like when you're having fun, you're connecting. And when you're connecting, you allow people to get ready for learning, and [provide] freedom from pressure. And just trying to get [the student to a place of] calm and enjoyment I think allows for people to be exactly who they are, whatever learner they are. And I know we've been talking a lot as a space of belonging, and that if we're having fun, and it's fun that allows inclusivity to all our friends, it just makes for a space where...we're finding that comfort and that low pressure situation for as many people as possible. I do think that the ultimate goal is to try and just create good space for young people to be the best that they can be.

Jenai: Yeah, I again, just want to re-emphasize the importance of incorporating play into every area of your life. Because what really, is life without play and fun--like, it would be such a drag.

Shannon: ...I think it is important to keep in mind that fun is not the exclusion of fights, or seriousness about the state of the world right now. Or, the fact that not all of our friends might not be included in any particular activity that we're doing. I think all those things are integral to our development and use of fun in education and in our doesn't have to be to the exclusion of fun.

Rodney: Such an important place to land as we end, that fun has been --and it's even trivial to call it a coping mechanism--it's been like a survival tactic for the human race throughout all of our timeline. That in the hardest of circumstances it was those folks who found moments of joy, and resilience, and fun amidst it all that also made it through all those storms. And so, as we talked about belonging--which Joel named--and resilience, and connection, those are really human needs. And all of them are connected to fun. This has certainly been fun. Thank you for taking time out of your day, and [making] time to talk about this, and to bring this important concept to light because I think if there's one thing that the world needs right now, it may be an infusion of deep, and purposeful,and organic, connected fun. So thank you.

Jenai: Thank you. 

Shannon: Thank you. 

Joel: Thank you.

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