Want the kids to learn? – Keep them engaged

The other day, I was playing with my kids and they were trying to learn some new words. We had just watched “Room on the broom” the weekend before, and we had hours of fun replicating the play as a family. Through this play, they learnt the concepts of gravity: “Down!” cried the Witch; counting (how many persons are on the broom now?); as well as delayed gratification (the characters combine only at the end to slay the dragon).

That is why I believe that all of us are always trying to make learning a fun and enjoyable activity with kids. Whilst this may not always be possible, the times that we have been able to achieve it forge many of our fondest memories with our kids.

Hence this blog post below, substantiated by research publications, which may shed some insights as to why learning in an enjoyable way can produce greater learning outcomes.


Intuitively, from our own personal experience, we know that being engaged during learning is important for good learning outcomes (i.e. to understand, remember and be able to apply the learnings). Many research papers support this intuitive view [1][2].

How do we then, keep our kids engaged during learning? Gathered from research and my own experience, the following are 3 tips:

1. Use relevant fantasy context to make learning fun [3]

For many years, great teachers have sought to interest and involve their students by embedding instructional materials into appealing fantasy contexts [4]. It is a common conviction that such techniques not only make education more enjoyable but also enhance students’ learning – that children learn best, most effectively and most lastingly, when they are intrinsically motivated to learn. This study from Stanford University [3] demonstrated that increased learning occur when instructional materials are made more intrinsically motivating through fantasy embellishments.

For example, bring your child on a mental adventure to the treasure island. Start with the planning of ration and supplies (which provides the opportunity to learn calendars, multiplication, division and problem solving). Then chart the course with a map and a compass (and here will be a great opportunity to learn angles, speed, distance and time). And finally, end off with finding the buried treasure and sharing the pot of goal (where your child can then learn about money, fractions and percentage).

Another example would be to turn your child into a mini baking chef to teach him fractions and volume (while weighing and preparing the ingredients), time (while timing the bake duration), and angles (while cutting up the round cake).

In the world of fantasy, there is endless possibilities.

2. Embark on project-based learning [5]

[5] Using project-based learning, students pursue solutions to nontrivial problems by asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, designing plans and/or experiments, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and communicating ideas/findings to others. The key to a good project is that it has to be novel (new) to the child, sufficiently challenging and has a closure so that an artifact (e.g. game, app, or physical product) is created.

For example, to learn Law of Motion (Physics), we can embark on a project to build a water rocket.

3. Gamify it! [6]

Games have the mystical power to hold our kids captives. The urge to keep playing is irresistible, especially when the exam is just right round the corner. It can be quite a bane to many parents. Many of us would hope to be able make learning as fun as gaming. Is that possible? This research [6] explored the key game attributes that make games intrinsically motivating:

  1. Fantasy (this is similar to our first point)
  2. Representation – Opposite from fantasy, this is to provide a close reproduction of the real world
  3. Challenge – It has to be the right level of challenge. Too easy or too difficult leads to boredom or frustration respectively (this may seem obvious, but executing it can be tricky)
  4. Assessment and feedback – Have immediate feedback for the child on whether the action taken was positive or negative
  5. Control – Children’s ability to influence elements of their learning environment (e.g. the pace of learning, type of feedback and how they navigate the content) [7]

Now that we know the key attributes, it is time to let our creativity run wild. Want to encourage your child to work on her assessment book? Why not set up an achievement ladder for your child’s chosen soft toy where each assessment completed will move the soft toy up by one notch, until the soft toy reaches its favorite food?

Bonus Tip: Edufy it!

An analogous approach to gamify would be to “edufy” existing games (i.e. modify existing games to include educational elements). This word doesn’t exist yet but it was thought of while we were working on our coding curriculum. Many games have an underlying Mathematical and/or Science foundation in-built in their game play. Putting in some efforts in gaining a deeper understanding of the game will often reveal these hidden educational treasures.

For example, when playing the classic boardgame Risk, calculate the odds of winning – this will teach probability. In fact, most card games have a probability component in its game play.

Angry birds provides us with the opportunity to learn about projectile physics while Lego can be used to teach Mathematics to young children.

Share with us your experience and examples

Do you have other good ideas and examples? Do share with us through the comments box below.

[1] R.M. Carini, G.D. Kuh, S.P. Kliein, Student Engagement and Student Learning: Testing the Linkkages. Research in Higher Education, Vol. 47, No. 1, Feb 2006
[2] G.D. Kuh, Ty M. Cruce, R. Shoup, J. Kinzie, Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, Volume 79, Number 5, September/October 2008, pp. 540-563
[3] LE Parker, MR Lepper, Stanford University, Effects of fantasy contexts on children’s learning and motivation: making learning more fun. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 62(4), Apr 1992, 625-633
[4] Chabay, Ruth W. “Self-perception and social-perception processes in tutoring: Subtle social control strategies of expert tutors.” Self-inference processes: The Ontario symposium. Vol. 6. Psychology Press, 2013.
[5] Blumenfeld, Phyllis C., et al. “Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning.” Educational psychologist 26.3-4 (1991): 369-398.
[6] Wilson, Katherine A., et al. “Relationships between game attributes and learning outcomes review and research proposals.” Simulation & Gaming 40.2 (2009): 217-266.
[7] Harbeck, Julia D., and Thomas M. Sherman. “Seven Principles for Designing Developmentally Appropriate Web Sites for Young Children.” Educational Technology 39.4 (1999): 39-44.