Experiencing joy leads to a multitude of health and wellness benefits, including reduced chance of heart attack, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and a boosted immune system. Joy also positively impacts learning by enhancing children’s cognitive abilities and increasing their aptitude for making social connections.
Joy is a distinct, specific emotion that causes the release of two types of neurotransmitters in the brain: dopamine and serotonin. These chemical messengers cause us to smile, laugh or even jump for joy. But the feeling is not limited to physical response. When children experience joy, information flows freely and they retain more of what they learned. Teaching and learning that induce joy and result in joyful classrooms are integral to helping students thrive and should be a goal. Research reveals that certain conditions lend to students feeling joy in the classroom. In one study documenting the emotions of first and second-graders, students responded most positively to student-centered learning that allowed them to “shine as experts” by making their own choices.
With so many children and adolescents having suffered adverse effects on their social-emotional, mental, and academic well-being due to the COVID-19 pandemic, infusing joy in learning feels more critical and valuable than ever. What produces joy may be personal, but there are many research-backed strategies that, when incorporated into classroom activities, can lead children to experience joy and begin to cultivate it within themselves.
Discovery: Learning activities that help children engage in independent discovery make them feel joyful, whether it’s reading a new word, unearthing a solution to a complex problem, or experiencing an “aha” moment when something clicks. Further, when students figure something out for themselves, they are more likely to remember and understand what they learned and feel more pride and confidence in themselves.
Identity: Individuals with a more mature sense of identity tend to have healthy self-esteem. Participating in activities that allow students to explore and affirm their identities, and feel their identities are being recognized and appreciated by others, yields joy and an increased sense of belonging.
Connection: Feeling connected to others and oneself generates joy. The health and academic benefits of childhood and adolescent relationships and friendships are well documented. Designing activities in which children collaborate to complete a task and solve problems with their peers on their own terms helps them form, enjoy and sustain connections with one another.
Movement: Movement and physical activity have a positive effect on mood and happiness, along with a variety of academic performance indicators, including cognitive functioning, behavior in school, and even grades. Programs such as Move to Improve integrate physical activity into various aspects of the curriculum to keep children moving throughout the school day and experiencing the effects of joy.
Play: Play has the potential to bring all of the above together. Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play describes it as “a state of mind that one has when absorbed in an activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of sense of time.” Play is built into humans’ neurobiology, benefits overall well-being, and improves learning. It is essential to make sure kids have time and space to play every day.
Embedding activities in the school day that elicit joy, such as those that incorporate discovery, identity, connection, movement, and play, is invaluable. But great value also lies in asking children and adolescents directly what makes them feel joyful. This helps students recognize joy in themselves so they can cultivate and integrate it more fully into their lives. As educators, we need to answer the call to find out where joy resides and give it a voice far beyond singing.
This article was originally posted on The 74, a non-profit independent news organization focused on education in America.