Like an on-again off-again romance, education and entertainment have a long-standing but ambiguous relationship. They seem to like each other, they get along well, they are usually found together. But they’ll tell you they are “just friends” even though they don’t act like it. But other times they are bitter jealous rivals—education isn’t fun enough; entertainment isn’t serious enough.
For all their mutual affection, it might seem that education and entertainment don’t share the same goals. But in fact, these two star-crossed lovers have much in common. Education and entertainment are drawn to one another, partners in a messy union that we might call “edutainment.”
Perhaps the chief reason for this competitive tension is that education and entertainment have different goals. Education aims to cultivate maturity, responsibility, knowledge and growth. Good education trains us for employment, for good citizenship, and for a deeper, more meaningful human experience. But entertainment aims only to amuse, and holds no prejudice against meaningless fun.
What do we do then? Should we throw up our hands in surrender? If edutainment is a mythic hybrid, like centaurs, the sphynx, or zero-calorie cheesecake, then any serious search for it is doomed to disappointment.
Fortunately, these two paths can overlap. They are meandering paths—not parallel roads. Education and entertainment frequently intersect, and when they do, we can enjoy the best of both worlds: rich delights and profound learning. Some the clearest proof of this can be found in educational toys and games.
A growing number of scientific studies are confirming what we’ve long suspected, that some toys and games are very educational. And I’m not just talking about cheesy “Fun with Numbers” coloring books, or spelling bees. I’m talking about genuine toys and games that are generally fun, even for your squirmy, restless little kids.
For creative classrooms, and homeschools, a bevy of strategically selected entertainments can offer crucial reinforcement for learning without the burdensome drudgery and drills of conventional class activities. Of course, there are better and worse ways to gamify education (i.e., letting Oregon Trail babysit your kids) but in general, when we can find ways for students to develop learning competencies through play and games, there’s a better chance they’ll be independently motivated to keep learning that skill long after class is over. What are some of these “edutaining” options?
Timeless and appropriate for most ages, jigsaw puzzles combine art and engineering to create an intriguing problem—a problem begging to be solved. Puzzle enthusiasts understand how a good, challenging puzzle is an obstacle to conquer, an opportunity to earn a sense of accomplishment, and to bring a little bit of order into the world. We might even say that jigsaw puzzles are a metaphor for life. The world presents itself as a chaotic array of random pieces, but each piece presents a clue to a bigger and more meaningful picture. Only the patient problem solver can bring order out of the chaos. With a little perseverance, he or she will finally uncover the meaningful whole. Kids won’t necessarily appreciate the metaphysical import of puzzles, but they can still learn a little while working through a good puzzle.
Kidshealth describes jigsaw puzzles as an invaluable educational toy for preschoolers (ages 3-5) because it helps train in dexterity, spatial relations, and logical thinking. We would add that jigsaw puzzles are also valuable for older children (and adults) for a therapeutic form of low-intensity brain training that engages memory, fine motor skills, and attention span. In the age of lightning quick interactive technology, it’s increasingly important for schools to counterbalance that trend through intentional exercises that strengthen focus and attention span. Jigsaw puzzles are a great way to help train in these critical skills.
Jigsaw puzzles aren’t recommended for the wee toddlers and babies for obvious reasons. Although, even then, there’s still some educational value when the child learns an important life lesson as you extract errant puzzle pieces from his sinus cavity.
It turns out the “extracurriculars” are pretty curricular. Elementary and middle school level physical education, recess, and sports (K-12) can teach students all sorts of important lessons like team-work, physical fitness, self-discipline, goal-setting, body awareness, spatial recognition, coordination, communication, healthy self-esteem, and hard work. And for many students, athletic efforts are a good stress-reliever. It can feel cathartic to exert excess energy and it can be empowering to accomplish something on the court, in the gym, or on the field before you go “tackle” that math homework.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that a rousing sport lets restless children use all their distracting energy for good before it spirals into a classroom disaster. As a general rule, kid-energy will explode horrifically if it isn’t properly harnessed for constructive purposes. Young children love to learn through playing. One might say that’s their most natural mode of education. Most every public and private school already knows the educational benefits of sports, but studies bear this out. To wit, student athletes tend to fare better at school than non-athletes. Angela Lumpkin of the University of Kansas reports that student athletes are more likely to finish high school than non-athletes. But they don’t just finish better, student-athletes fare better too. Kathryn Watson reports in “The Mental Benefits of Sports” that, compared to non-athletes, student athletes reflect a better mood, less stress and depression, improved concentration, fewer weight problems, better sleep habits, more after-school and community involvement, and better scholastic outcomes.
To be fair, not all students are “sporty,” and the educational advantages of each sport are liable to vary. Sports can be fun but the “entertainment value” can vary from student to student and from sport to sport. Nevertheless, athletics offers a learning environment where energetic kids don’t have to sit down, shut up, and listen closely. Instead they can get up and move, shout and play; they can learn all sorts of things in the most organic interactive low-tech 3-D gaming environment there is: the real world. Different sports offer different means of engaging students who are, variously, social learners, tactile learners, learners who thrive on competition, those who revel in clear rules and firm boundaries, or those who work better in team settings. To be sure, athletes and athletics can be abused. For many schools, the football or basketball program is just a revenue stream and academics are subverted beneath the almighty dollar. Student-athletes can be commodified and redefined into what Christopher Saffici and Robert Pellagrino call “athlete-students.” But with a little balance and oversight. athletics, physical education, and recess can provide some of the best edutainment that kid-energy can buy.
The unrivaled royal family of construction toys are those simple little bricks from Denmark called Legos™. There are other great construction toys to choose from including K-Nex, Tinker Toys, and Erector sets.. But no construction toys have come close to the iconic status of Legos. Although there are some pretty impressive creations with K-Nex—an award-winning brand highly recommended in STEM education—Lego still has them beat in the variety of sets, variety of themes, international popularity, and number of theme parks (7 Legoland parks).
Many of the educational benefits for the Lego detachable brick system are readily apparent: creativity, motor skills, engineering, problem solving, spatial recognition, reasoning. But these toys have surpassed the status of mere toys and have found their way into a wide array of school and adult-level applications including architecture, fine art, robotics, and therapy. It’s difficult to overstate the educational potential lurking inside this plastic tactile toy.
Architects often cite Legos as inspiration for their early architectural interests. One particular architect, Adam Reed, made such intriguing and extensive “proof of concept” models for his designs using Lego bricks that Lego eventually launched an Architecture series of play sets, on the basis of his designs, including models of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, the White House, the Louvre, Big Ben, and some Frank Loyd Wright designs. These playsets enable a wide array of crossover studies between architecture and engineering, history, art, and even government.
Lego has also reached the adult market through fine art. Perusing a simple Google search of “Lego art” can consume your entire afternoon. You can see some of these masterpieces for yourself at the next Lego convention or competition.
One of the more accomplished Lego artists is Nathan Sawaya. He works exclusively with legos. His New York artshow drew rave reviews. Other artists, working on a smaller scale have given new meaning to “cubism” with these creative Lego art pieces. Most students probably won’t have the time or energy to create a Lego Rivendell. Nor will parents likely want to pay for the more elaborate Lego creations. But, Legos are still a great art medium for class projects in abstract, kinetic, and representational art.
Robotics and Legos were bound to marry eventually. The first computer controlled Lego robots were released in 1986. In 1998, the robotics invention system called “Mindstorm” was released. Today, Lego robotics is a booming open-ended opportunity for budding inventors to investigate STEM principles through hand-crafted robots of their own making. Students can start with pre-fab sets like Technics or Mindstorm EV3, or get their hands on some power-function pieces and start building their own robots from scratch. Lego robotics can be very serious business too. Students who are up to the challenge can enter their robots into international competitions like FirstLegoLeague, and earn some serious STEM credentials.
Lego has even made its way into therapy and counseling. Children’s counselors have long touted the benefits of play therapy in facilitating communication, socialization, and grief counseling. But the systematic tactile quality of Legos, and its puzzle-like appeal, have forged a whole new category of play therapy. Lego Therapy is a real thing, and it works too. Lego enthusiasts have long understood the engrossing and calming effect of interlocking these like pieces—not unlike the effect of a jigsaw puzzle. Those therapeutic effects are easily seen. But one pioneer, Dr. Dan Legoff, went farther by intermixing elements of play therapy and social rules using these Lego bricks. The results were impressive, especially for students on the Autism spectrum. The method isn’t terribly complicated either. The method is fairly easy to replicate with a little investment in some Lego sets. For elementary teachers or homeschool parents, Lego therapy is a great way to help make breakthroughs for socially awkward, uncooperative, or autism-spectrum students. And for other students, it’s just a lot of fun.
In the wide world of strategy games, Chess is one of the most widely researched and well-proven educational options. Over a battery of studies, researchers have found that Chess correlates with improved reading scores, memorization, math scores, problem solving, creative thinking, and with an overall ability to learn new things.
What makes chess so special? Why might teachers want to use Chess in their classrooms? Patrick McDonald reports seven reasons why Chess should be a classroom staple:
- Chess accommodates all modality strengths. [i.e., different learning styles]
- Chess provides a far greater quantity of problems for practice.
- Chess offers immediate rewards and punishments.
- Chessplaying students become accustomed to looking for more and different alternatives, which result in higher scores in fluency and originality.
- Competition fosters interest, promotes mental alertness, challenges all students, and elicits the highest levels of achievement.
- A learning environment organized around games has a positive affect on students’ attitudes toward learning.
As an instructional game, Chess is “top tier,” but there are other instructional games that could be included here too—especially as they might connect with the different interests of students. Strategy game enthusiasts can attest to the intellectual benefits of Risk™, Stratego™, Settlers of Cataan™, or newer entries like Pandemic™ and Ticket to Ride™.
Another iconic boardgame that’s become a regular entry among the classics. This game is known for training people in spelling and vocabulary, but there’s some arithmetic involved too (using the four basic operations). Scrabble has long been a popular boardgame, having sold about 100 million sets since it was first trademarked in 1948.
Today, about 1,000,000 students participate in competitive Scrabble annually.
So is Edutainment Possible?
Yes, edutainment is clearly possible. But we must add that entertainment is not the goal of education. Education, rightly understood, aims at the academic, intellectual and social growth of human beings. School should be in the business of cultivating decent, wise, well-rounded adults from a few seeds of knowledge and adolescent soil. Naturally, that task only sometimes overlaps with entertainment. Entertainment is still important, indeed it might be the best motivator there is, and education only happens when students are motivated to learn. There is no universal formula for making school “fun” or to make learning “cool.” It is the artistic skill of good teachers that brings education and entertainment together in a way that inspires students into lifelong learning.
Regardless of what you’ve learned from Pink Floyd videos, education doesn’t have to be torturous drudgery. There are some lively and engaging ways to stimulate learning without devouring student souls. Indeed, learning can be a lot of fun, even if we admit that we are still responsible for teaching and learning when the motivations wane, joy subsides, and we still have to plow through the heavy lifting and tedium that are also inevitable to the process.
Fortunately, there is almost no limit to the new and exciting ways to adapt our lessons to student strengths and interests. Standard classroom work can be gamified. Boring assignments can be retooled into competitions. Creative teachers can often find entertaining angles for most everything in the classroom. And of course, the list of educational toys and games above could easily expand to include adventure sports and camping, musical instruments, field games, arts and crafts, Tangrams, playing cards, Checkers, Chinese Checkers, Kinetic Sand™, Uno™, building blocks, Lincoln Logs™, Mancala, Cuisinart Rods™, Backgammon, I Spy, Twenty Questions, Connect Four™, Etch-a-Sketch™, Pictionary™, Monopoly™, Chutes and Ladders™, Boggle™, Play-Doh™, Things™, Bananagrams™, Loaded Questions™, Cranium™, Trivial Pursuit™ , Stomp Rocket™, Dominoes, Triominoes™, Phase 10™, Sequence™, Rummicube™, Clue™, Blokus™, chemistry sets, Reversi/Othello™, Battleship, and a thousand more games and toys.
And we didn’t even mention video games… Clearly education and entertainment can work well together, and the most effective learning models take both very seriously. The romance between education and entertainment is well worth preserving even if the two sometimes drive each other nuts.
 According to the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) sports generally associates with an array of benefits but can vary by sport and by social climate. For example, highly competitive sports programs can distort values—putting atheletics above academics—and can increase signs of depression and suicidal behavior. See: U.S. Antidoping Agency, Truesport: What We Lose in our Obsession to Win, (U.S. Antidoping Agency, 2012), pgs. 8-9; accessed 23 August 2016 at: http://www.truesport.org/library/documents/about/true_sport_report/True-Sport-Report.pdf. See also,
 Apparently, there is serious contention over which of the two, Lego or K’nex, is the better building system. Debate.org even features a formal debate on the topic [http://www.debate.org/debates/Resolved-Knex-are-better-than-Legos/1/]. Without trying to weigh in on the overall worth of these systems, it does appear that K’nex is better with curved track structures—like roller coasters, ferris wheels, etc. Lego seems to be better with block-based and non-porous structures. Both building systems offer limitless variety of options and budding engineers have plenty of inspiration from either from either of them.
 Jerry Meyers, “Why Offer Chess in Schools?” (pgs. 8-10) in Patrick McDonald, The Benefits of Chess in Education [Online Booklet], (Ontario Canada: Self-Published, N.D.), pg. 8, accessed 25 August 2016 at: http://www.psmcd.net/otherfiles/BenefitsOfChessInEdScreen2.pdf