Treating children with respect is one of the most fundamental aspects of teaching in the Reggio Way. While it manifests itself in all kinds of different ways, often times the simplest way to convey respect to children is by really listening to what they say, and also acknowledging that what they say is often exactly what they mean. Children deserve to be taken seriously and they should be trusted to know their own minds.
And while the right to be taken seriously is vitally important to the fabric of teacher-student relationships, it sometimes runs up against another right that we often neglect: the right to be silly. To many children, joking is a serious matter. Jean Piaget is often accredited with describing play as “the work of children,” and a large part of the way children play is to laugh and make light of the everyday situations they experience. To many students, comedy is a powerful, universally accessible form of expression. It is a vehicle by which they test and widen social boundaries, establish new friendships, and strengthen both their mental and physical selves.
With so many centers honing in on school readiness and skill-based learning, it can sometimes feel like there is a secret war against levity going on. Time spent joking around or “being silly” is sometimes deemed wasteful, or even harmful to students in that it detracts from the already scarce time teachers have to cover important material. In many schools, children have barely enough time to learn, so teachers can’t afford them the liberty of time to joke.
But the old adage “laughter is the very best medicine” isn’t just a expression. While it may not always seem at first glance to be conducive to more traditional classroom models, comedy is a vital means by which young students explore social interaction with one another. Laughter makes us feel good because it triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, and because humans like to feel good, children and adults alike gravitate towards peers that appeal to their sense of humor. Jokes and silliness are a way for children who are still navigating the intricacies of peer-to-peer communication to break the proverbial ice with one another. By making light of a serious situation, students can strengthen their existing friendships and create new ones. In our class, we have a few students that even use a joke or a little laughter to diffuse tense situations or altercations, which functions as a very effective form of conflict mediation. Every teacher has heard children use jokes in moments of guilt or remorse; when caught doing something wrong or inappropriate, many students tend to hastily explain that they were “just kidding.”
In short, children are very good at using comedy to their advantage. Whether consciously or subconsciously, they use laughter as a tool for learning and exploration. Given its efficacy, it makes sense to me that instead of discouraging their behavior in moments of silliness, teachers might be better suited emulating it. I enjoy joking around with the students in our program because I like to share in their fun, but beyond my personal enjoyment, the ability to facilitate children’s laughter serves a variety of practical purposes.
The benefits of levity in a learning environments aren’t exclusively social. Laughter is physically good for us in a plethora of ways. In my experience, injury can often be overcome more easily by getting children to laugh than by assuaging them in more traditional ways. Especially for younger students, it can help them take their mind off of their pain and disrupt the sometimes rapid downward spiral of anger or sadness. There is a chemical reason for laughter helping injured children: endorphins. Endorphins are natural opiates which can help suppress and relieve pain. Believe it or not, jokes can also literally help children grow. A little laughter can help the human body release growth hormones, which play an integral role in the development of everything from a healthy diet to muscle tone to hand-eye coordination.
Most importantly, laughter is a way for people to establish connections with one another. In much the same way that students create and strengthen relationships with their jokes, teachers can create strong and lasting bonds of trust with students by learning not just to study with them, but also to laugh with them. Learning and comedy are not antithetical, but complimentary. My co-teacher and I strive to engender a learning environment that is not only replete with opportunities for investigation and discovery, but also full of laughter and kindness. While excessive silliness can occasionally become disruptive or detrimental to the safety of others, appropriate levity instigated by both teachers and students can serve as the glue that bonds a community of learners together. Children laugh because it makes them feel good, and they know that their laughter makes their peers feel good, too. In that way, children understand that comedy is a linguistic extension of empathy.
While it is an essential part of student-teacher bonding, I believe it is important for teachers to strive towards sharing more visible moments of lightheartedness with one another. It is my personal opinion that teachers that can laugh together feel a greater connection to one another, which in turn has a positive effect on the way they conduct themselves in a classroom setting. Laughter relieves stress, which for teachers is nothing to be scoffed at; a few jokes can make a noticeable difference in preventing burnout and feelings of monotony in the workplace. Moreover, it is invaluable for students to observe adults laughing with one another because it normalizes their own joking behaviors. By seeing two adults that they respect interact with one another in moments of mutual silliness, children can come to the organic conclusion that laughter is not a “childlike” behavior, but a inexorable and universal part of what it means to be a healthy, happy human being.
In the end, part of taking children seriously is considering the intentionality behind the things that they do. While it may not always seem to be the case in moments of frustration, children aren’t laughing, joking, and mucking around because they want to aggravate their teachers. Laughter is one of the most pervasive of the one hundred languages of children. Just like mathematics or architecture or science, the power of comedy attracts the insatiable curiosity of young learners. Because one of the many jobs of a teacher working in the Reggio Way is to facilitate the interests of students, it is both our privilege and responsibility to share a joke or two from time to time.
And if we happen to have ourselves a little giggle in the process, well, so be it.