“Fun” vs. Rigor in the Classroom: At Odds?


“Learning can’t be all fun and games!” As a classroom teacher, have you heard (or perhaps expressed) this sentiment? 

Many educators may associate “fun” in the classroom with games and activities that are engaging but not necessarily rigorous or standards-aligned. Some even see a trade-off between engagement and rigor. But is this trade-off real?

It may be easy to associate “fun” with frivolous, because fun learning may look silly, disorganized, or even chaotic to an outsider. Students may be jumping up and down, dressed up in costumes, or vigorously coloring or painting in a subject where those activities may not seem appropriate.  In contrast, when it comes to getting students to think critically and develop 21st century skills, we often imagine a more serious tone permeating the class — students sitting quietly at desks writing or conversing in hushed tones.

But should this dichotomy really exist? 

Where Fun and Rigor Meet: What Researchers Say 

Many have made the case that aspects of “fun” learning are actually critical for a child’s development and education, starting from those 21st century skills. Two of the “four C’s” are Creativity and Collaboration, skills that likely are developed in a classroom environment more flexible (and loud) than the one described above.

Youki Terada, the Research and Standards Editor at Edutopia, argues that incorporating drawing across the curriculum — an activity often reserved for “fun” time — helps students consider content in a new way and often leads to better processing and recall. And in an interview in Psychology Today, mathematician Eugenia Cheng discusses how she believes that keeping students amused in class, particularly by using props and other learning devices, helps students engage with what they’re learning. 

At the Connecticut Science Center, “fun” activities are the way the museum’s educators draw students in to practice scientific thinking and even consider careers in STEM. Students regularly build and launch rockets, virtually travel to space, and more. The Science Center, which also runs an academy for educators to support the implementation of NGSS in schools, emphasizes how important it is to inspire students to “think like a scientist” by conducting experiments and problem-solving using the scientific method — rather than simply explaining how something works.

In addition, the Common Core requires a diverse range of activities for proficiency within each grade level, making clear how important it is to incorporate many modes of learning, particularly the “fun” ones. Within the “Speaking and Listening” category, for example, drawing, visual displays, multimedia presentations, and creating audio recordings are all required within grades K-12.

Fun in Your Classroom: Tips from Teachers  

So how should you consider incorporating fun into your classroom without sacrificing rigor? We asked our experienced Teacher-Author community, and here are a few of their suggestions: 

1) Get students moving.

Students at every age appreciate the opportunity to get out of their seats and incorporate movement into their learning. Gallery walks, readers’ theater, and many STEM challenges all encourage physical activity within a structured learning environment.

TpT Teacher-Author Anne Morgan from Suburban Science explains:

“I teach high school Anatomy, so I love to get kids up and moving. Demonstrating physiological concepts is fun and interactive while allowing them to learn complex topics.”

2) Allow students to direct their learning.

There often isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to getting students engaged and excited in the classroom. That’s okay. Giving students options, such as allowing them to express their understanding with a drawing, comic strip, graphic organizer, or written paragraph allows students to find their passion while adhering to the guidelines you’ve set. 

TpT Teacher-Author Nichole F. from The Craft of Teaching describes:

“One thing I do is let the kids have the control. If they get to choose how to make a poster, or what books they will read today, they are having fun. If they can be creative when figuring out how to solve a problem and present it, that’s more fun than just solving 15 problems on a worksheet.”

3) Use games for review.

Teachers sometimes struggle to find exciting ways to review content before a test. Turn your flashcards or study guide into a game where students compete against the clock or earn points while practicing cooperative learning in a low-stakes and high-impact environment. 

TpT Teacher-Author Chandra Martin from Teacher Gameroom encourages the use of digital games:

“Games are a great way to engage students while helping them understand and master tough concepts. Digital games, specifically, allow for teachers to assess student learning and for students to have fun, learn, and stay engaged the whole time.” 

Similarly, TpT Teacher-Author Katie Reeder Prentice from KTP on TpT describes a game she uses in her own classroom:

“Before our big district math assessments, we did a fun review game. My students worked in partners to solve a problem and then came to check the answer with me. If they got it correct, they got to go write their name under a flipped over piece of paper that was taped to the board…When everyone was done or time was up, I would flip the pages over (“Drum roll please…”) and then they would work together to add up their points (another opportunity for practicing addition, regrouping, etc.) to see who the winner was. The winner didn’t actually win anything tangible, but it was always SUCH a fun way to review!”

4) Tap into students’ emotions.

Not all students immediately feel invested in a specific topic, book, or activity.  Connecting their learning to their emotions, however, will make them feel recognized and energized to participate actively in their learning.

Teacher-Author Lyle Jacobs from Real Native Learning Resources explains that he frequently uses Readers’ Theater with characters that have easily identifiable emotions, quirks, or character traits. When teaching how characters change, for example, he describes:

“A fun assignment I have my students do (after reading the script) is create a three-panel comic strip showing how the character feels in the beginning, middle, and end of the story!”

5) Change it up.

Sometimes, a little novelty is all that is needed to get students excited about their learning. Experiment with flexible seating and have students sit in different places around the room for different activities. Change their groups and partners frequently so that their projects and centers feel new. Incorporate different disciplines into a single lesson so that students don’t get stuck in a fixed-mindset about the subject. 

Yes, learning may not be all fun and games. But a little fun (or even a lot!) certainly won’t hurt — it may even encourage more rigorous learning happening in your classroom! 

Fun and Rigorous TpT Resources