Can Fun and Play Improve Intelligence?

Published on August 10, 2012

Make learning fun for childrenDerek Bok, lawyer, professor and former president of Harvard University once said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” I have to wonder if Mr. Bok had ever heard of Collège Alpin International Beau Soleil in Switzerland. At over $100,000 US per year for tuition, it is the most expensive school in the world. After throwing in another $80,000 US plus for fees and expenses, the school costs parents over $200,000.

A student could attend from the 1st grade (in it’s earlier days) until graduation in the 12th grade. That’s $200,000 times 12 years! Do the math. You don’t have to graduate Beau Soleil to know that it costs a lot of money to graduate your child from that school. Still, if you have your heart set on enrolling your child into Beau Solei, I want to offer a little advice.

Next to working 12-hour days, seven days a week from the day your child is conceived, until they graduate and get a job, the best thing you can do is start training your child for the entrance exams. If you begin early enough say, while your child is in the womb, you may have a chance of getting a partial Beau Soleil scholarship. The next bit of advice I will offer you comes from a study published in the Australian Journal of Psychology titled The effects of funny and serious task content and expectations of fun versus importance on children’s cognitive performance. The idea of the study is to access a child’s consciousness in such a way as to improve test performance.

The lead authors, David Nguyen and Nenagh Kemp from the School of Psychology, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia partnered with other researchers and the Department of Psychology, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada to perform the study. According to the authors, “It seems intuitive that children are likely to be highly motivated, and thus likely to perform well, when engaged in tasks that are perceived as high in fun.”

The first thing is to rack your brain and try to come up with thirteen of your closest and funniest friends. The authors used postgraduate students, but you can just try to get your smartest friends. Then, have your buddies rate a set of 110 definitions as ‘funny’, ‘not funny’, or ‘undecided’. Throw away all of the definitions that garnered undecided, and any definition that did not receive a 75% consensus of funny or not funny. If we consider the words ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ as exchangeable, then the researchers seem to be on to something. They cite:

“When children are tested on the block design task in the McCarthy Scales, they are asked to ‘play with the blocks’. In the Stanford Binet Intelligence Scales, the examiner is advised to build rapport with younger children by calling the tasks ‘a series of games with some fun tasks’. In the Weschler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, children who appear disengaged are told that there will soon be ‘games that are lots of fun’ in order to arouse their curiosity.”

Regarding that list of words generated by the graduate student, examples of a funny noun and verb are ‘a bunch of blue bananas’ and ‘sleeping on a panda’. ‘Returning a library book’ and ‘a basket of dirty clothes’ were unfunny examples. Of course, a child’s brain differs from an adult’s and thus the two probably will find different things funny. That said, this step seems to be a necessary evil of the study. The children were then asked to complete two versions of a task where “the funny task used the definitions rated as most funny during pretesting, while the serious task used the definitions rated as most ‘not funny’ (least funny) during pretesting.”

The researchers acknowledge that the increased learning and brainpower, as measured by the paired association tasks likely has more to do with just humor. ‘Flow’, the joy felt during complete mental involvement in an activity increases attention span and decreases distractibility, both contributing to increased performance. This is probably what we mean when we say “I was in my zone.

Another possibility is that the fun aspect of the task made it more personally interesting to the child. Perhaps a task could be presented in a fantasy context, say allowing the child to play an astronaut while learning about the solar system.

I feel compelled to remind you though, sooner or later your child will have to stop having so much fun and get down to the business of learning for learning sake. I mention this because the reality is that most educational institutions simply do not strive to make their curricula 100% fun. But as long as your child is in grades 1 though 4, the researchers believe that “when a situation emphasises the need for performance, individuals are likely to adopt performance goals, both immediately, and in the longer term. This can lead to shallow learning and greater vulnerability to negative affect, such as performance anxiety and effort withdrawal.”

With any luck, by the time your child applies to Beau Soleil, they will have hired a few really funny teachers.

Category(s):Academic Issues, Child and/or Adolescent Issues

Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”