the fun theory in education

In her post on Fun Theory, Laura Grace Weldon shares some observations that are deeply resonant with many of the posts you’ve already read here. She’s writing about the relevance of the Volkswagen Fun Theory campaign to what she believes is central to meaningful education. In the following quote, she describes something that I’ve often said in relation to gamification and other efforts to make learning, working, marriage, parenting, etc., more fun:

I think that’s why we need to pay attention to what’s fun about learning. Yes it’s different for each person. But what’s universal is that each of us is capable of fascination, excitement, and wonder. Why fish around for methods to motivate and sustain a child’s attention when joy is right there, showing us the way?

And then this on the importance of Trial and Error to learning:

Learning is fun when errors don’t feel like failures. Watch a group of friends figure out what tools and design elements they’ll use to make bracelets from a cast-off metal objects. Their initial results will likely be both positive and negative. Their mistakes will help to guide and refine their progress. Thomas Edison said of trial and error, ”Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

When your child is building a fort out of branches she may experiment with several approaches. This open-ended process allows her to repeat successes and learn from errors, getting ever closer to the desired result. Trial and error often pulls the learner forward to greater mastery. It’s also tremendously enjoyable.

I reiterate: “learning is fun when errors don’t feel like failures.” This is a deceptively simple observation that touches the core of what keeps things from being the fun that they inherently are. See also The Failure Bow.

And this, on meaning:

Full engagement in any pursuit that is meaningful to the individual may not sound like a prescription for fun. But it is, because it tends to lead to what is called flow: a sense of focusing so fully that we lose sense of time, discomfort, even self.

Artists and athletes aren’t the only ones who experience flow, children easily merge into this state. A child may experience flow while engaging in make-believe, drawing, swinging on a backyard swing, playing the guitar, fixing a bicycle, even organizing a shelf.

You may not be able to predict what has meaning for your child, but chances are it fuels learning. Your daughter’s fascination with horses may lead her to equine-related mathematics, history and science. Her learning is enlivened with wonder and purpose. That absorption is also fun.

Yes, and again yes. “You may not be able to predict what has meaning for your child” (or even yourself), but if you accept it, follow it, let it take you, chances are that it will lead to learning, and joy.


  1. Barry Kort on January 1, 2013 at 7:55 am

    Having spent a lifetime solving puzzles for fun and solving problems for a living, I’ve come to the conclusion that almost everything like that can be viewed as a Very Pretty Combination Lock.

    Well, maybe some of them aren’t all that pretty, but we are embedded in a fascinating and bewildering world of combination locks.

    Discovering how to open one is a joy and a mechaia.

  2. Lily on January 1, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    “Learning is fun when errors don’t feel like failures”.

    I have had many discussions with future teachers about what reinforcement (rewards). I am a firm believer in rewarding efforts instead of success. The minute a child starts trying to spell a word is the minute we need to give them a “good work!”. Starting (trying) is the important part. Success comes with its own internal reward (“I did it!”), we don’t need to give a reward on top of that. It’s trying that we need to reward. And, the ones that try the most, should be rewarded the most. I think sometimes that’s the way we get “outside of the box” answers, because even those who only have to try once to get the “right” answer, can then be encouraged to try some more to find more answers.

    Love and laughter,

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