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Adding Joy + Play to Any Classroom

woman outside in a garden playfully blowing bubbles with a joyful expression

Joy is an essential part of learning, but it can be one of the hardest to make room for in the pressures of teaching and the limited time we have in the classroom. Play can be a key ingredient to adding joy to our classrooms, but when we think about play, our thoughts often go to younger children in elementary school. What can joy and play look like for any age, including middle school and high school? Teacher Caitlin Lore joined Linda on the podcast to share  how to bring joy and play into the classroom

Image of Caitlin Lore in front of a book shelf smiling (headshot)

Caitlin Lore is a playful and joyful high school English teacher in Lincoln, Illinois. Her love of stories  and her faith drive her teaching, which has spanned middle and high school grades. Beyond the classroom, Caitlin writes stories for young readers, loves hobbies, and is an all-around creative who chronicles these on her Substack, The Time Given, her Instagram, and her website

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LINDA: So why do you think joy is important in the classroom?

CAITLIN LORE: This can be a loaded question nowadays. Joy is so important because the world is hard in so many ways. And that could be a whole episode in itself, right? But kids deal with a lot today, students do, and especially in this kind of post-pandemic era

School has changed, the world has changed, we've changed. But joy combats a lot of the struggles society has. And to me, it's an important element in the classroom because it's a way to fight the heart, right? Joy proclaims, "no, we're not going to let the struggles rule our life."  We're going to find the joy and live for that. 

drop everything and rest

As believers, of course, we know joy is a fruit of the spirit. So anytime that we can bring any element of that into our classroom, we know that's going to be in alignment with what the spirit would have. What do you think it looks like to embrace and prioritize play? How does that cultivate joy  in the classroom?

Well, play is something that brings me back to childhood. When we're children, especially, play is just so much of who we are—at least, we hope it is. With society and all the shifting—so much more technology and digital things—we're kind of losing a little bit of play.  That is an aspect of the classroom now; we're so focused on testing and standards and all of these things that we forget about play, but we absolutely need it. When we're playing, we're joyful, we're happy, lost in our imagination. And so bringing play into the classroom, and bringing joy into the classroom, they're synonymous to me.

So in a classroom, we've got to get our work done. What does that even look like to bring in play? You're not saying, “we're not learning anything today.” So can you give us some ideas of what this might look like, or some ways that  you incorporate play in your class?

One of the biggest ways I incorporate play is with what I call DEAR days. This is a throwback to my own childhood when my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Pickett, had us celebrate DEAR days. It stands for Drop Everything And Read  and it was associated, I believe, around Beverly Cleary's birthday. And it was just this idea of “let's drop everything today and just read and enjoy the day.” And so as an English teacher, yes, I am here for that.

My students, not always so much. So I've changed the acronym to be Drop Everything And Relax. We try to do it once a month, usually after we finish a unit. We've been hard at work, and so it's time for a little bit of a celebration and a Drop Everything And Relax day. For me, it involves no screens because it's time to turn away from those. I have board games in my classroom. I have a Lego station. I have arts and crafts. I have coloring books. And for some kids, you know, it's playing the games, for others it’s connecting, and for some it is pulling that book open and reading. 

Then as the teacher, I try to do this with them. I'm not just grading or working on things. I am sitting and playing games with my students or I'm building Lego and engaging in community with them. And  that's an easy way for a lot of teachers to be able to kind of pull play in because it's not curriculum-based. We can sprinkle this in here or there. Usually for us, it's when we finished up a big unit or there have been times in the past where we've had a hard week or something has happened in our community at our school. And I can see that joy is dwindling  in my students and we need this day to just step back from the pressures of learning, the pressures of school, and call up on that  childhood nature of play again.

Yellow-gold colored version of woman blowing bubbles with text over top: Joy proclaims "No, we're not going to let the struggles rule our life," from Episode 303: Adding Joy + Play to Any Classroom The Teach 4 the Heart Podcast

See joy as a life skill

I know there are some teachers, and I feel like I fall in this category, that are asking, can I really take like a whole period and not do any learning objectives? Because some kid aren't going to read, they're just literally going to play.  What would you say are the benefits that you see?  Why is this is worth it, even if we're not getting anything done this day? Do you notice a difference in the days after or in students' abilities to persevere until that day? 

I 100% believe it's worth it. And I do see the change in my students. Because especially, I teach mostly seniors. There's a lot of pressure on them for grades and college applications and all of these things. And a lot of them work outside of school as well. So when we're talking about older students, they've got so much going on in activities and they just don't have time  to be kids and play. Taking a DEAR day allows them an opportunity to step away from the pressures of school and be a kid again. It's therapeutic, it's relaxing, and I think it helps them feel safe because you're building community in your classroom too.

If I am there mingling with my students and playing the games, I'm showing them the importance of, being okay with taking a break some of this stuff and just living and enjoying life and finding some joy. I do see a renewed sense in them. Like when we come back the next week and we're diving into our next unit, it just feels like they've had a breath of fresh air. They've had time to breathe so it's not just moving from one thing to the other. Now they’re renewed to start something new. And I think that is also teaching them good routines for life as well. In a sense, that is life skills, we can pull that in. I'm sure we could find a standard or something for that if we had to.

You're modeling Sabbath, really, that balance of life, and I would imagine then that you can say, “I'm really expecting you to work hard when it's time to work. And then we’ll have our times of rest.” You're modeling celebration too, the idea of taking time to pause and celebrate what you finished.

Be Intentional

So if teachers are saying to themselves, “I really don't think I can take a whole period,” is there any benefit to taking 10 minutes, 20 minutes for DEAR?

Oh, absolutely. I do always do it for a full period in mind, but the way I design my curriculum and my units, I actually build these in as like this is the unit ender. This is going to be what we do to celebrate to move forward because I'm a big believer in celebrating our work that we've done. So that's another little way I bring in some joy in the classroom is celebrating all of these things we've done. But I absolutely think you could take maybe the last ten minutes on a Friday or the first ten minutes of a Monday to embrace play.

Sometimes my students are so wired, it's hard to get them focused. And so something joyful, just stepping out a little bit gives them a chance, I think, to reset.  It's kind of like a brain break, but it's a brain break for play. And I think  I teach a lot more older kids, so I know younger kids need a lot more movement and those sort of brain breaks in the classroom. But I also think older kids need a lot of that too. We kind of stop some of that once they get to a certain point, but older kids need these things too.

And it is not a wasted day if you do it intentionally. It's part of the plan. The curriculum fits around it.  And that forces you to be strategic and, you know, make sure your curriculum fits. But I love that. I love that you prioritize play in your plan.

Yes, and like I said, I try to stay away from screens. So it's not just a, okay, you can go be on your phones or you can play games on your Chromebooks? I'm strategic in what we do. So we have Legos, which are creative, but also working critical skills. I have a chess set and checkers. We have these games that they're using, they're engaging their brains. And so  it's not just mindless play or mindless scrolling on things. It's very important that it's tangible and kinesthetic so that they are using their hands. They're getting out of their brains and using their hands to do this because it's a different way of  using those creative and critical skills as well. 

Yeah, that's a really good point. And depending on what you teach, you could even really be choosy in which games you choose. You can choose things that you really want them to engage with. And for older kids, that benefit of having time away from the screen is really just such a lost art and bringing that in, relaxing without a screen. That really is a life skill.

Celebrate often

What are some other ways  that you keep joy and playfulness in the classroom? 

I love to celebrate just finishing things. I'm a very creative teacher, so we do lots of projects and fun things. And I teach a creative writing class. After every writing project we do in my creative writing class, we always have some sort of celebration, whether it's a gallery walk and their projects are laid out so students can walk around and mingle and read and enjoy.  Or we sit around in a circle and everybody gets to pick their favorite part and read it aloud. I think the act of sharing work is also a way of celebrating because we can acknowledge and honor what everyone's done.

And sometimes that doesn't even have to be at the end of a project. If you're doing something with students and you're working and doing some sort of writing, whether it's creative or more analytical in nature, just at the end of the hour, take a few minutes and ask students to share their favorite line or favorite thing. This act of giving them snaps or applause to celebrate the work they've done helps students understand, it's more than just an assignment. So celebrations are big.

I also really love to do room transformations like the beginning of units. So I might hit up the dollar store or look into my holiday bins to see what I’ve got that I can bring into my classroom. For instance, in my senior English class, we study Edgar Allan Poe and do some spooky month stuff. And so usually at the beginning of October, I decorate my room overnight.

When they come in the next morning, there are  little flickering candles and cheap black tablecloths—I turn the lights down and they walk in and it's not just a classroom, right? This transformation immerses them in the experience of what we're doing. I have a hobbit party before we read The Hobbit in my fantasy class. I bring in cupcakes and we get to walk around and do some fun trivia.  And it's the small things, but watching their faces light up and realize “I get to have fun while learning” And that's important.

Yes. I know for some of us, the fun and the play comes naturally. But I think for others of us, we're so task-oriented, we need to ask ourselves, well, what would make it fun? Some of these ideas, take time, but some don't. Some are just simple and easy and just saying, what can I do to bring in that playfulness, that fun into the classroom, making it as enjoyable an experience as I can? And I love the celebrations because not only is that fun, but that it's also motivating. You're hitting on some of those beliefs. You're showing them, hey, your hard work paid off. Your effort produced a result. And that's really encouraging in that way as well.

lean in to what you love

Do you have any final tips or advice for us as we think about this?

Don't be afraid to lean in to who you are as a teacher, right? I am 100% a nerd. I'm the quintessential English teacher. I'm a big fan of Harry Potter, and so my classroom is decorated like in Harry Potter for most of the year. I knew my junior high years would probably love it. I didn't think my high school kids would love it. So I slowly brought in things a little bit at a time and they absolutely love it. I teach, 17 and 18 year olds. I sort my kids into Hogwarts houses every year and it becomes this really friendly competition and they eat it up. I think that's part of the active play and joy.

What makes  you joyful? What makes you feel joy as a teacher? When you share that with others, they're going see your joy and that's going to bring joy in them, right? Part of being believers with Christ, is sharing the gospel and the joy with others. We're all made in our own way and different things make us light up.  I think when people see that, especially our students see that in us, then they feel comfortable in who they are and what brings them joy. You'd be really surprised at then how many of them might actually love something you enjoy. The act of embracing what you love and bringing it into the classroom is the easiest way to bring joy and play into teaching.

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Woman blowing bubbles in a garden: adding joy + play to any classroom. Teach 4 the Heart podcast

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  • I think this ideas are great and definitely, I will use some of those ideas. I really like ethe Lego game.
    Thank you!

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