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The Fun Theory

I’m not aware of any official Fun Theory in the field of learning. But fun shimmers under the surface of motivation and focus like a very big fish. And the fish named Fun shouldn’t be ignored.
I lifted the term Fun Theory from an old Volkswagen campaign. One of their videos shows busy commuters choosing an escalator instead of a staircase. People are rarely motivated to do otherwise. But when the same stairs were transformed into a giant electronic piano 66% more people chose to hop, dance and run up those musical steps. Fun works. (It also sends the Volkswagen logo around the world in a great example of viral marketing.)
It’s no surprise that pleasure is motivating, although what one person finds enjoyable may not be remotely engaging for the next person.
That’s the key. Fun is highly individual. It can’t be easily pre-packaged, even though promoters of textbooks, curricula, and enrichment programs assert their products do just that.
You can tell when educational materials and experiences don’t engage the young people in your life. They exhibit, shall we say, obvious symptoms. I won’t list them here. These symptoms tend to cause us all kinds of angst.

A child’s stubborn insistence that learning be meaningful and interesting is actually a sign of positive selfhood. We need to pay close attention to each child to really see what sparks enthusiasm, evokes awe, sharpens focus, builds on interests, and challenges abilities. That’s what advances learning.
The elements that make an activity or interest compelling for any one person can’t be neatly summed up, nor should they. A person is too complex to reduce to a List of Handy Motivators. But you might want to consider such factors if you’d like to understand why your child prefers to do things his or her way, or why some enriching activities “work” and others don’t. Below you’ll find brief notes about some of the factors that make learning intrinsically pleasurable and interesting. Think of your child as you read over the list. Think of yourself too. You’ll recognize many unique ways that lively, engaged learning happens quite naturally.
Trial and Error
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.
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.
Discovery is highly motivating and feels quite a bit like fun. It lures babies to put everything into their mouths. It propels us to try new music, peer around forbidden corners, travel to distant places.
When a friend brings up an obscure bit of information, your preteen may check it out later only to find an unexpectedly engaging exploration through subjects that never interested her before. Or perhaps your son’s curiosity is piqued by a new venture he wants to try like making homemade cheese. The project opens up to ever wider explorations such as homesteading skills, the claims of raw milk advocates, and recipes using artisan cheeses. For most of us independent discovery has the greatest allure.
What is new and unexpected heightens attention and activates all kinds of interest. That’s why marketers are constantly coming out with newer versions of the same thing. Novelty leads readily to exploration or play. By itself, novelty wears off quickly. (Those commuters will tire of the musical stairs and probably go back to using the escalator.)
You can rely on something new to stimulate interest. Just remember that too much reliance on novelty doesn’t help children build their own deeper resources of attention and interest.
Play isn’t “just” for fun. It’s an essential component of learning. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
said in an interview, “…evidence continues to accumulate that the learning of emotional control, social competency, personal resiliency and continuing curiosity plus other life benefits accrue largely through rich developmentally appropriate play experiences.”  Unstructured free play is particularly important. We already know it’s fun.
Direct Experience
Hands-on efforts make learning come alive with pleasure and satisfaction. Frank R. Wilson notes in The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture that brain and hand use have always been connected. When a young child is put in charge of preparing vegetables for a stir fry dinner his efforts may not be entirely helpful, but the sensory experience of washing, chopping, and tasting offer him much more than growing competence in meal preparation. The sensory experiences enhance comprehension and lock in learning. When a child expresses interest in puppetry she may want the opportunity to make puppets, stage puppet shows, and go to puppet guild meetings. The more fully involved a child can be the more direct (and lasting) his or her learning will be.
Challenges are fun as well as educational because they keep us right at the edge of our competence, pushing us on to the next level (exactly why video games are so compelling). A ten-year-old may enjoy the logical challenge of debating his older brother, the practical difficulties of planning and filming his own scary movie, the physical and social risks of showing off at the skating rink. These self-selected activities push him to advance a whole range of abilities. Challenges keep us too absorbed to grin but for our own good reasons.
There are plenty of other “fun in learning” factors such as relationship development, competition, sensory pleasure–surely you can think of more. All these elements are intertwined so completely that they only make sense when we see them as connected.
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?
Author: Sharon W. Nicholson

Sharon W. Nicholson is the author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything and a poetry collection titled Tending. She lives on a small farm in Ohio with her family where they raise cows, chickens, and a wild rumpus. She hosts an ongoing discussion about natural learning.