Making Learning Fun – Why and How…

I was reading “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge when I came across a reference to an interesting study:

“In 1954 James Olds and Peter Milner showed that when they inserted electrodes into an animal’s pleasure center while teaching it a task, it learned more easily because learning felt so pleasurable and was rewarded.”

You can find more details about this study on Wikipedia.

We all know that children learn best when they are having fun. So, too, do adults. This is the research that supports what we’ve been aware of for ages. Yet, despite being aware of this, it’s surprising that we don’t try harder to make learning more fun. We just assume that there are some things we have to learn that aren’t fun and then we knuckle down and get to it. Although adults are capable of this sort of purposeful learning, the brains of children (particularly the very young children) are not. If it’s not fun, they stop. And then they do something else that is fun. This is why proponents for early learning like Glenn Doman and Makoto Shichida emphasise the importance of “joyful” learning. If it is no longer fun – stop!

And that’s where it gets a bit messy – defining what is “fun” because fun for one person might be boring or even unpleasant for another. Fun for Aristotle is going to the bookshop and reading books. Fun for Hercules is running around a park (which isn’t fun for Aristotle unless there is a playground). Fun for Hercules is rolling in the grass, picking up stones, and stomping in puddles of water. You’ll never see Aristotle doing that because he’s particular about dirt. Well, he’s getting better these days – I think school is helping to desensitise him. I was really surprised when he came home with sand in his clothes because there was a time when he wouldn’t even walk on grass!

I digress… What complicates things further is the adult expectation that children need to learn that not everything in life is going to be fun so they should get used to the idea of knuckling down – the earlier the better, preferably. While I do not deny that this is an important life lesson, I think this is one case that earlier is not necessarily better. I think it is more important to preserve our children’s love for learning first. They can learn to knuckle down later. In fact, they may develop the habit on their own when they discover a goal worthy of pursuit.

Cycling back the the topic of fun, it was this particular line that had my mind spinning in circles for a time: “it learned more easily because learning felt so pleasurable and was rewarded”. If you can’t make the lesson fun, then how about bringing the fun to the lesson? If we artificially induce a good mood while our children are learning that “not so fun” subject it could also work, right?

What can we do to induce a natural high? A couple of thoughts came to mind…

1. Dopamine Release

The chemical messenger dopamine is often associated with learning, reinforcement and reward-seeking behaviour, therefore, triggering its release will help promote learning. One way of triggering the release of dopamine is through the consumption of certain foods – two easy sources are bananas and chocolates. So could learning be made easier by rewarding your child with chocolate? Now there’s a thought…

2. Exercise

Exercise triggers the release of endorphins which generate the feeling of well-being. If we can incorporate some physically active component in the learning process, would our children find it easier to learn? In TweedleWink, they encourage children to move around during the lesson because they believe children learn better that way. Could this possibly be the reason why?

Based on the conditioning theory, if you ensure your child experiences pleasure with the learning process of a subject they don’t really like on a regular basis, they should eventually come to enjoy the subject on their own. Just another thought…

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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