I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

Playful Teaching: School Is Supposed To Be Fun

By Oskar Cymerman | @focus2achieve | BAM! Radio Network & Teaching Channel Blogger

Playful Teaching

I recently started reading the book Playful Parenting by Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen, a psychologist from Massachusetts. In his book, the author talks about teaching rather than punishing our kids. He claims, and I must admit that it makes a lot of sense to me, that we can best achieve that through "Playful Parenting."

Playful parenting is a practice through which parents can help handle strong emotions kids and they themselves experience. It emphasizes "joining children in their world, focusing on connection and confidence, giggling and roughhousing, and reversing roles and following your child's lead." And, perhaps most importantly, it can help you learn to reconsider your paradigms involving discipline and punishment.

Why not adopt such philosophy in our classrooms?

Join Students and Connect with Them

Find it in your heart to give yourself permission to make frequent excursions into your student’s world. You’ve been there before. Those brain neurons are still there, hidden underneath the “I’m an adult now” ones. Time to recall them to action. You’ll be glad you did.

For me, that world is high school teen world of amazing, awesome, and awkward. I already act like I’m 17 half the time, so I can give you some tips here if you’re a high school, maybe even a middle school teacher.

  1. Speak the “language.” Not all the time, but drop a line here and there with a straight face and keep talking like nothing happened. If they give you something back, give them a big grin. Continue, ‘cause you’re on a roll now!
  2. Chuck Taylors, skinny jeans, band shirt and/or flannel. ‘Nuff said. If you’re school is formal-like, it’ll provide a great change of pace and scenery on Fridays. C’mon! They can give you a Friday! Right?
  3. School Spirit week - Do It and there is no box. Weird is good, because it usually comes with a story, which brings us to…
  4. Tell stories. You were a teen once and you did dumb stuff. College works too. Talk about your epic school fails or how you got played by this boy or girl. Just keep it all PG homie.
  5. Classroom playlist. Death metal or profanity-laced stuff don’t help productivity. Occasionally, do sing along when that Taylor Swift tune or headbang to Wild Thing when they come up on the classroom playlist. Then, tell everyone to calm down and keep working. Don’t worry. You’re not projecting, you’re motivating.
  6. Phone break. What?!?! Hey, the phone is practically a body part to a teen. Take it away and it’s like cutting at least one of their hands off. You can fight it. It will suck. For you and for them. So teach your students to use their phones to learn and create whenever possible. Give them a 5 minute phone break in the middle of class during which they really should not be on their phones. Just tell them you’re doing it at the beginning of class and that will eliminate most looking at their crotch. Hey, I’m just keeping it real here.
  7. Flexible seating. Starbucks your room over one summer. Do you have someone telling you where to sit and forcing you to sit there until they decide when you can change your seat? If so, then you’re reading this in prison. I didn’t know you get Internet access in prison. That’s kind of cool. But, if you’re not in prison…
  8. There’s a bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting, but the idea is to keep the mood light, loose, and liberal. The brain doesn’t like stress. Don’t stress your students’ or your own brain. You’ll like it better. And you’ll live longer.

Oh, and make sure everything you do is appropriate, safe, and kind. It’s easy to get carried away once you start really enjoying being with your students and embracing them for who they are. Or maybe that’s just me. I act like a teenager half the time and I’m pushing 40. Oh well...

Giggling and Roughhousing? - Just More Ways to Connect

These are reserved for YOUR OWN KIDS I’d say.

But never fear, because you can have fun in many other ways.

You can high five, come up with secret handshakes, and fist bump. And just because you can, make the fist explode or do the jellyfish at the end.  

You can get down on the floor with them. Sit elbow to elbow in their circle.

Eat lunch with them from time to time. Just not every day. That’s super weird. Surprise them, but don’t freak them out.

You can play catch with a soft nerf ball, so that no one ends up with a bloody nose, and everyone gets a brain break. They need it. And you do too. Win-win in my book. 5 minutes won’t hurt anything and will allow minds to relax enough to continue working with renewed enthusiasm and motivation.

You can kick a hacky sack with the kids for a minute or two in the hallway. So what you suck. Invent a new move, call it something cool, and tell them you’ve learned it watching the Hacky Sack World Cup (probably a figment of my imagination, but if you Googled it no one can blame you).

Thing is, these little things make a big difference, but you must step out of your safe zone and try

Build Trust and Confidence

This is huge. HUGE.

How many students raise their hand to answer questions in class? There are far too many afraid or too timid to speak up. And then there are a few others who are too aggressive.

“Powerlessness creeps in as a result of the setbacks children experience as they strive to feel confident and self-assured. They can’t do things as well as their older siblings or their peers, so they feel frustrated. They are criticized and punished and given grades, so they feel judged. They are flooded with the messages about how they are supposed to behave, how they are supposed to look, what they are supposed to buy, so they feel inadequate. The combined effect of these feelings leads children to retreat to the fortress of powerlessness, either down to the hidden dungeons (passivity), or up to the battlements (aggressive pseudo-power).” - Lawrence J. Cohen

As parents, we often dilute ourselves thinking kids will be more resilient if they face hardships while they’re young. As teachers, we often take on the same tough love approach. No one will baby them when they are adults, so why handicap them by cutting them breaks now, right?


We might think they’ll toughen up, all the while this approach frustrates and discredits who they are. They are kids! Even in high school, as they fight for more independence, they are children still. I could talk brain science here and say that their prefrontal cortexes have not fully matured, and while that’s true we must recognize that they are developing emotionally still as well. So, it’s actually unnatural to expect school children of any age to behave as if they were adults. Yet we do all the time! And our collective experiences prove that however unnatural it is, it can be done! But, at what cost?

You could do a complete 180 and really protect them from everyone or everything, but that’s no good either.

So what’s the remedy?

Nurture and challenge at the same time. To build confidence and trust, treat your students with kindness and respect while challenging them to keep tackling increasingly difficult challenges. Let them win in the beginning and keep making the “game” progressively harder.

As an example, you might consider starting the first week with just getting to know each other activities and doing a collaborative assignment everyone will enjoy and be successful with. In week two, when you start content learning, ask yourself which topics are least difficult and teach those. And so on.

Remember that you are not teaching the book, but young human beings. Build a foundation. Don’t tear them down before they have a chance to succeed. I teach chemistry and I want them to be saying: “This isn’t so bad” and “I can do this.”

Reverse Roles and Follow Their Lead

When you give students control, they will surprise you. And, in a good way most of the time. So, let them lead, teach themselves and learn on their own.

Try Genius Hour. If you connect with your students and build a foundation of trust and confidence, they will be ready for the challenge. And they will crush it.

If you’ve never done Genius Hour commit to seeing the process through. It will be chaotic and messy at times, especially in the beginning, but trust the process. It might be hard to see at first, but your students will learn. A lot more than you can imagine. And, it won’t just be content driven. Remember the 4 Cs? Yep, those 4 Cs - passion-driven projects will bring them out in droves. No need to mention them. They’ll just happen. Over and over.

But, I don’t want you to feel as if I’m leaving you hanging here. Check out this Genius Hour page for all the resources (including description and links) you’ll ever need to get started with Genius Hour.

Why So Serious? - A Few Thoughts on Beginning of the School Year


I remember my first teacher prep class prof telling us soon to be newbie teachers not to smile on the first day of school. To lay the groundwork. Rules and Consequences. Show who's boss.

That's a recipe for stress. Just what every teacher and student needs more of in their life: STRESS.

I just read an article in The Atlantic by Timothy D. Walker "How Finland Starts the School Year" and it made perfect sense to me. The author, an American teacher choosing to teach in Helsinki, Finland, talks about the Finnish way of "easing into the school year" - basically chilling and spending the first week back getting to know each other and the environment in a very informal way.

And I'm not just talking elementary here. It's actually common in Finland to give high school freshmen an extra day to settle into the new school environment. The adults "want them to feel more at home at their new school before the real work begins.” They emphasize "the importance of fostering a welcoming, low-stress learning environment first."

Why can't we?

Play and Prevent First, Punish as a Last Resort

Playful parenting can help parents become the best parents they can be, because it is centered around the child's needs, is rooted in the understanding of how children develop emotionally, and considers the impacts of parent-child interactions on their social development.

Shouldn't teaching be the same?

I taught a very rambunctious group during my 4th period chemistry last year. They were coming to me straight after lunch and to say they were energized is an understatement. And that was a good thing. But, it was a challenge to get them all to quiet down. Even after most did, a group or two usually continued their conversation. There are days when I felt i needed to get going pronto to cover everything, which in retrospect requires some reflection and rethinking on my part, and I got annoyed even frustrated to have to keep telling the same kids to shut up.

I did not punish anyone - there was really no reason for it, and I did notice that being playful and engaging these students by genuinely asking them about their very important conversation or making it into a joke actually worked. I’d ask, and then say something like: Thanks for including me in your conversation and if you can find it in your heart to pay attention now, I will be eternally grateful. It works so play. Just be a good person they trust.  

What if I battled and punished?

Brain research suggests that “punishment has the least effect on the very children who are most likely to be punished.” As these children are more impulsive and have a harder time fitting in, punishment only brings on more chaos. Instead, they need space (physical and mental) to quiet their mind, process thoughts, and organize a more effective response.


One idea I adopted from Dr. Brad Johnson, an author and former middle school teacher, is to create a space in the classroom where students can go to take a break. It can be an area with a yoga mat, or an exercise ball, or both where any student can go at any time he or she needs a break.

Maybe there’s a student in one of your classes who’s so hyperactive he just can’t sit in his seat all day. Give him the opportunity to dissipate the excess energy or anxiety or frustration by being able to do a plank on the yoga mat or close his eyes while balancing on the ball. Just make sure you make this a normal thing - common practice and not banishment or punishment. It is something that can become a part of the flexible seating classroom: a mental break area of sorts.

School is Supposed to Be Fun

I've taught for 14 years and it took me almost that long to see the light. I had to drop the outdated traditional teacher prep school paradigms, learn about my students and myself, relax, and let things flow naturally. School is supposed to be fun for students and teachers. And, if we understand who our kids are, play more, and punish less, it will be.

Source and Inspiration: Playful Parenting by Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen

Thanks for reading and Happy New School Year. If you liked some of my ideas you might want to SIGN UP for my NEWSLETTER and I'll drop more of them straight in your email inbox.

And I want you to always remember this when you look into the eyes of a child you teach:

You have the power to change the world. Use it often.