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Teaching Humor

Updated: May 9, 2019

Why Laughter and Learning Go Hand-in-Hand by Tim Walsh

Mary Kay Morrison is a professional educator who has dedicated her professional and personal life to researching the benefits of humor and play.

In the introduction to her first book, Using Humor to Maximize Learning, author Mary Kay Morrison coins the phrase, “Humergy,” or the “energy of humor.” Of all the good that comes from humor, laughter and play, I never deeply considered the energy boosting benefit. Yet, after speaking with her, it became evident to me, that not only did she have "humergy" in spades, but that her particular brand of it was very contagious.

Mary Kay's aforementioned book came out of her work with the Illinois State Board of Education. "I went to numerous schools as a part of my job and got really interested in the brain and how we learn," she said. "I started as a kindergarten teacher and got so frustrated at the slow reduction of play in our school over time. Administrators were taking play out of the curriculum and focusing primarily on testing. It felt wrong to me. And so I really got into brain research and how we learn." She found that play, the very thing that administrators were taking out of school, was crucial to learning. "Sadly many administrators assume that if they hear laughter coming from a classroom, then there's no learning happening."

Mary Kay Morrison's first book, published in 2008

To help change the perception of play, she developed an administrative academy for the Illinois State Board of Education on using humor to maximize learning. "I started doing workshops all over the state for administrators on the importance of play to the brain and learning," she shared. "Teachers kept coming up to me and giving me ideas for what worked for them in their classroom, and so my book was 9 years of the accumulation of great teacher ideas."

But what she heard from teachers wasn't all good. "I hear first-hand from teachers who are in a very stressed environment and how the pressures of mandated testing and evaluation have impacted their own personal mental health and in turn, the environment in the building and in their classrooms," she said. "We have a mental health crisis in our schools right now. There are not enough counselors and kids are being put in desks and made to do testing. It inhibits their creativity, it inhibits their ability to think outside the box and to actually be mentally healthy."

Another "fear-factor" she's identified is the idea of play being detrimental to class behavior. "Teachers tell me, 'If I let the kids laugh and play even a little, I'll never get control back!' But in reality, the very best teachers use humor for classroom management," she says. "They are able to look at a kid with a twinkle in their eye and just say one or two words and that kid will laugh with them and go right back to working. Unfortunately, we don't study that and we don't model that. Teachers who are good at incorporating humor and play, while maintaining control should be teaching other teachers how that is accomplished. One of my pet peeves is that none of the teachers-in-training get any coursework in humor or the importance of play, unless they’re in early childhood education."

According to Morrison, we're all good at seeing the importance of teaching play to infants, but move away from it far too soon. "Parents try to get their newborns to smile and then laugh across all cultures," she says. "But play is not just for young children. One of the most heartbreaking things I've heard came from a fifth grade teacher who told me she tried to introduce some playful activities into the classroom and the kids said, 'We're too old for that.' That just broke my heart. We need to get kids to associate learning with fun at all ages. In surveys, the number one characteristic that high school students want to see in their teachers is a sense of humor."

Yet for many teachers, play and today's testing-focused climate do not mix. "I always want to be aware that when we talk about introducing play into a classroom, many administrators and teachers are really uncomfortable," she says. " I have learned that relying on the research and sharing all the benefits at the beginning is crucial." (A link to research articles can be found at the end of this post).

"In 2005 I got involved with the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor. I went to the conference that year and was immediately fascinated with this organization. It just opened up a whole new area of expertise and research to me and I've been with the organization ever since. I'm a past president there and I started the Humor Academy, which was created after years of leadership research, including participation in the National Staff Development Council. It is a three-year program and a lot of the tenants that I developed in the Humor Academy are grounded in the research that I gained from that organization and those great people." (More on the Humor Academy).

Mary Kay Morrison believes that a sense of humor and playfulness are both innate and learned. "It's both nature and nurture," she says. "I believe that anyone can develop their humor practice. I'm passionate about bringing humor and laughter into the world. One of the tenants that I encourage people to do is 'Play Everyday!'"

Research and resources:

The Power of Play in Kindergarten:

The Power of Play: A Research Summary on Play and Learning by Dr. Rachel E. White:

The Cognitive Benefits of Play: Effects on the Learning Brain by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.:

Playtime Isn’t Just for Preschoolers—Teenagers Need It, Too by Hilary G. Conklin, Ph.D.:

A New Push for Play-Based Learning: Why Districts Say It’s Leading to More Engaged Students, Collaborative Classmates … and Better Grades:

A bibliography of books can be found at the AATH's Creativity and Play Resource Page.

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