I’ve started this off with a picture of kids playing on the swings, flanked by two pictures of kids playing out, as we were when I was a child. On the move, very active and learning all the time.
While Lottie and I were searching for pictures of children learning through play, it struck me that most people assume that once they’re at school, they will stay glued to their seats with a pen or a pencil in their hands, as if they never do anything else. And there is very rarely any sign of fun, which runs counter to everything I found out when I was first a teacher.
Since then, it’s always been a belief of mine that the more fun you and your pupils can have in the classroom, the more likely it is that they will learn. As I taught English and Drama, I had classrooms a plenty and a drama studio in which to set up the riots. Drama is such a doddle if you are wanting to have a laugh and enjoy yourself. I set my classes all manner of quite ridiculous tasks. Usually in teams of four to two, like decide which of you is bringing in the patient and which of you is the vet and give him the most unlikely patient you can think of, an elephant with tooth ache for example. They caught on very quickly and we had a lot of wild fun chasing a giraffe with a sore throat around the studio or holding our breath while the vet held down a flea that had broken its leg. If I had a nervous set of adolescents, new to me and the studio, we played even naughtier games. One that went down very well was to get them to find a partner of the opposite sex without saying a word, just looking, then sit with that partner as I told them the scenario. ‘You have been to a great fun party, now you are in bed, lie down’ and they all lie down on the floor, and I give them the rest of the scenario. ‘You wake up to discover that you have a total stranger in the bed alongside you. One, two, three, go.’ They would end up shrieking with laughter.
As they are depicted in most published photographs, classrooms tend to look sombre and serious places, but they are equally useful for unexpected fun. My classes caught onto the fact they would play the tennis-elbow foot game, as part of an English lesson. You could sit in pairs or fours, in other words singles or doubles in the game, I tossed the first ball into play and tried to chose things that would get a strong reaction like ‘squash’ or ‘broken leg’. The player I had tossed the word to had to respond with a word that fitted it but was the first word that came into his head. He in his turn would pass it to the next player who had to keep up the game for as long as they could and anyone in the rest of the class could challenge a word saying it didn’t follow. Then the challenger had to describe why it didn’t follow and ask what was the connection. I brought them up tough and accepting that you can learn in any situation. At a desk, on your feet, playing games, as these kids here are.
Essay titles could be another source of fun and a way to provoke thought. I soon gathered a collection of the ones that worked best, like – ‘I am not having that creature in here’, Mother said, ‘it’s got spots’ or ‘Grandma gave a little shriek and disappeared backwards up the chimney’.
The only problem in all this was that the headmaster was a very serious man who didn’t believe in fun at all and was deeply suspicious of it. His idea of a good class was where the children were all sitting in rows, perfectly silent. My idea of a good class would be total mayhem and extremely noisy, especially in the drama studio. He came to see one of my early classes early on in my career in his school and his eyebrows disappeared into his hair, or would have done if he had had any. ‘They should be sitting down’ he said, and when I pointed out very gently it was a drama lesson, he sighed heavily and left. But probably the best treat of all for all of us, was to walk from the school to the beach and to jump off the sea wall into a pile of seaweed which might, or might not have sewage in it. This is what I like about children, they have a glorious sense of fun and they are usually wildly unpredictable. But probably the best and the most fun was the incident of the fire door.
One of my pupils was a prima donna and a very pretty one, but her attention wasn’t always on the drama, more often then not it would be fully concerned by the next man in her life, so it tended to swing between rapturous happiness when the romance had just begun to weeping anguish when it had gone wrong and at that point she could be very dramatic indeed, ‘You don’t know what I am suffering’ she would shout at the others. On one occasion she was obviously suffering so much that she cried out ‘I can’t bear any more of it’, flung open the fire doors at the end of the studio, rushed into the grounds and threw herself on what she obviously assumed was what it usually was, a pile of grass. But it was mud and her shrieks were heartrending and half the kids in the class rushed out after her to cheer her on but she was already mud-bespattered and weeping, running towards the school building and I had to say to the kids ‘Come in now fun’s over.’ But it wasn’t because a fire engine arrived, parked alongside and ready for action. ‘Where’s the fire?’ they called to us. How’s that for a start of a story?
But in my case today, it will have to be the end of this one.