Saturday, March 11, 2017

Laughter in the Classroom

There is a reason so many of us enjoy stand up comedy, funny sitcoms and movies, and being with our hilarious friends.  Humor brings pleasure! Humor engages several parts of the brain (including pleasure centers), lighting up more parts of the brain than any other function used in the classroom. When we tune in to humor, we become more deeply engaged in the task at hand, promoting better learning and retention of information.

The brain circuitry that responds to humor in the adult brain is already present in school-aged children, whose brains gain complexity as their cognitive skills develop.  It is rumored that the average child laughs 300-500 times a day, while adults laugh just 15 times on average per day.  Whether or not the difference is so extreme, it suggests that children need laughter!

Humor is a universal human activity. Philosophers and scholars have spent centuries seeking to understand its origins.  V.S. Ramachandran's false alarm theory suggests an evolutionary significance of humor.  For our ancestors, threats to survival were very real and immediate, and a laugh signals to others, "Don't waste your time on this. False Alarm! We're not in harm's way".

Today, we can capitalize on the benefits of humor in the classroom and in the home. Here are a few of humor's benefits to children (and adults!).

Relieve stress
Humor helps us cope with disappointment and allows us to reframe negative events.  Laughter leads to lowered blood pressure and a relaxed body, and reduces the production of stress hormones by firing up and then cooling down the stress response system.  In the classroom setting, kids experience a range of emotions and feelings. Children have conflicts with one another, they feel frustration and disappointment, and even, at times, sadness. Humor can lighten the tension and allow us to bounce back with ease.

Put mistakes into perspective
Some children are sensitive and take it hard when they make mistakes or have to be corrected about their behavior. When adults find humor in our own goof-ups, we show children that mistakes aren't the end of the world. To err is human, so why not try to find a little humor in our errors and move on?

Connect at a human level
The positive correlation between humor and liking corroborates extensive research suggesting laughter strengthens interpersonal relationships.  There is something priceless about finding people who will laugh with us. My closest friends bring out my own sense of humor and laughter. Think about it - how often do you laugh uncontrollably while alone versus with others? Laughter is often surrounded by people.

Facilitate creative thinking
Humor uses divergent thinking and thinking outside the box - two essential cognitive functions of creativity. Incongruity theory describes humor that replaces logic and familiarity with the unexpected. Humor often plays on our mental and physiological anticipation of a predicted outcome - but something else happens instead.  This kind of humor promotes flexibility in thinking and reasoning, a skill that teachers want to build in students.

Humanizes and neutralizes the child-teacher relationship
Even in the most egalitarian classrooms, the teacher is typically viewed as an authority. I believe this is as it should be - children derive a sense of trust and security from the adult's unyielding presence.  However, we want children to feel comfortable, open, and honest with us even within this power dynamic. Humor promotes an easy, friendly atmosphere that sets a relaxed tone that welcomes open and honest sharing.

The humor in bodily functions
Bodily noises are funny to children. It's a natural part of childhood. Sadly, yet understandably, this type of humor is often shunned by teachers. We can trust that most children will, over time, internalize social etiquette, and learn not to laugh about flatulence in social or professional settings. However, if you don't welcome this type of humor, create rules around it that don't shame the child for being a kid. Because let's face it - farts are funny.

Humor is different than cheap entertainment
While slapstick humor or extreme silliness by adults can be quite entertaining, it can also be obnoxious, intrusive and overbearing.  In early childhood education settings, we want to offer children experiences that engage their participation and interaction.  Appropriate classroom humor is not one-sided, but rather, it connects people and invites participation.

About tickling
Some may be tempted to elicit laughter by tickling. While some see tickling as an important form of nonverbal communication, conflicting opinions fear it can be abusive and disrespectful.  Any game with children, tickling included, should stop immediately if the child shows any discomfort. There are many sources to offer guidelines on how to keep tickling games respectful and how to replace tickling with more beneficial forms of physical play.  Tickling should not replace meaningful physical and social bonding: hugs, hand holding, high fives, saying "I love you", active listening, doing activities together, being present for the child.

Keep it real
Teachers and parents must use humor mindfully. Children need space for authentic experiences.  We must never assume that kids are only "okay" if they are laughing and smiling and visibly enjoying themselves. Humor should not be a way to sidestep normal and necessary childhood experiences of emotions like disappointment, grief, frustration, nor should it be used to manipulate children into feeling a certain way or controlling behavior.  Laughter is one of many important experiences of childhood.

Here are some ways you can facilitate humor in your classroom:
  • Change words to familiar songs or stories.
  • Create rhymes and play on words. 
  • Laugh at children's jokes. Sometimes I even comment, "Hey, you made a joke!"
  • Allow silliness to unfold (it will come up during singing, dancing, storytelling, make believe play, and any time children are socializing). This may require giving up some control of your classroom!
  • Find age appropriate jokes. The knock knock joke will always keep them thinking, participating, laughing, most likely, creating their own knock knock jokes! 
  • Use objects in unexpected ways.  This also allows children to use their imagination and think creatively.
  • Have one or two humorous books in the reading corner. (You may consider taking these out before rest time.)

Adults need to laugh, too -- here's my favorite funny video:

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