Thrilled to Learn


Rings of paper encircle the room. Hurried activity fills the space as children cut, twist, and staple small rings of colorful construction paper together. Many children are working on a goal, one that started as an idea, then took on a life of it’s own. I have been watching this work for many weeks. Looking from afar, the work seems repetitive but to the children it is challenging and exciting. 

This was the scene a few as a group of children collaborated to create the longest paper chain possible. The chain was already very long when I decided to observe the work more intentionally. What peaked my interest was the joy and collaboration the children were displaying as they made the paper chain wrap around the room multiple times. 

This is an example of what the Lego Foundation calls, “The Characteristics of Playful Experiences that Lead to Deeper Learning.”This is part four of a series inspired by a Lego Foundation video I viewed on Twitter, about how play invites deeper learning. What is joyful play? What does joyful play look like?

The Lego Foundation video says, “Joyful play is the children getting more involved in play and enjoying the task for it’s own sake. It is what makes learning challenging and fun.”There are five characteristics I have observed in children as they engage in this type of play. 

Joyful play in school age children is about engagement. It starts with the children’s interest in a material or an idea. This is an activity the children choose to explore and have wonderings about. This is a process where children, alone and in collaboration, engage with their interest and take a deep dive into the process of finding answers. This is an in depth investigation with challenges along the journey. The children don’t mind the challenge because they are invested in learning more and making connections.

Another aspect I have observed in joyful play is improvisation. The act of play has an experimental quality that children are attracted to. When children are exploring a material or idea the pace moves rapidly and evolves quickly as the children experiment and try new ideas. For example, at the beginning of the paper chain process, the children tried in rapid succession many different methods of cutting paper strips and attaching them together. The learning journey was filled with much discussion and differences of opinion until a method was deemed the right one and full-scale production commenced.

The third characteristic of joyful play is that it is long lasting. The children when involved in an exploration of their own choosing will work on making discoveries and attempting new ideas for an infinite amount of time. When a work session ends  the children who are engaged in this type of play always share that they cannot believe how much time has passed and that they want to keep working instead of going outside, having snack, or going home with their parents.

An important factor to invite joyful play is the environment. The children like to explore ideas and wonderings in different environments. Each child has a favorite environment in the program and does their most intense work in that space. Having access to the inside and outside along with a wealth of different materials and tools invites the children to become lost in their work. When the children are in their favorite environment they come alive with ideas and activity around their play experience.

The last factor I observe on a regular basis with the school age children is the verbal connection that is created when children are engaged in joyful play. When working joyfully the children are talking, sharing, and teaching each other. The work takes the form of a long conversation between scientists who are trying to figure out answers to questions that develop rapidly during each work session. The material or activity the children are engaged in does not change their approach to the work. The same conversation goes on when talking about a leaf or how to paint a picture with watercolors. The children approach the process of learning the same way.

What can we do as Early Childhood practitioners to invite this type of joyful play and learning?

Opportunities for children to engage in joyful learning are nurtured as the children are invited to choose their own work, engage with and explore a variety of materials, have educators that work with the children, and see themselves as co-learners. A part of the co-learning journey is documenting the children’s work and responding to the material and social needs of the children as they travel though the learning journey. 

Another part of the learning journey involves the children sharing their ideas and work with the other children. Inviting and encouraging children to share and inspire the other children grows the learning community. Sharing reinforces the learning journey and creates new ideas that other children want to try and share with others. Many projects become a sharing and teaching circle with children teaching children about new discoveries and techniques for engaging in play.

Creating access to a variety of environments is important so the children can gravitate toward the environment that most inspires them. If possible the access to  different environments is available at all times of the day, so the children can work in the environment of their choosing when they are ready. Plus having access to multiple environments creates opportunities for expanded learning and experimentation.

In the end the paper chain made it two and a half times around the school. The children counted the links and I believe it was close to seven hundred. Many joyful links were created in a process that may not have seemed complicated to us but was a great example of how the children gained joy and learned about a material and each other in the weeks they engaged in joyful play in the learning community.