In this week’s episode of the podcast, Letty is talking to Lisa Thauvette about why we should bring joy and levity into Montessori education, how it’s linked to student learning, how to incorporate play in the classroom, and how joy can be felt among the adults in the community as well. Lisa is a former head of International Montessori School, and a speaker, trainer, and educator.
by Letty Rising
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This article is a condensed version of a podcast transcript. For the complete experience, you are encouraged to listen to the entire podcast episode.
Lisa, could you tell us about the concept of joy and levity?
I’m delighted to discuss this topic! When we talk about joy and levity, it’s particularly relevant for those of us who work with children. Naturally, there’s inherent joy and lightheartedness in that. However, Montessorians aren’t generally known for their sense of humor, despite being quite funny individuals. My objective is to underscore the importance of allowing room for levity in our work.
Levity adds a sense of buoyancy and lightness to any situation. Although the term “playfulness” is not traditionally linked to Montessori education, it’s an essential aspect of our human experience. In Montessori settings, we may not “play” with toys, but we do “work” with educational materials. That said, we should also embrace a playful attitude and foster a culture of playfulness.
Being playful is part of our very essence as humans. While some animals exhibit playful behavior, humans are unique in the extent to which playfulness is ingrained in our nature. It’s something we should actively nurture and encourage. This isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’ attribute; it’s grounded in brain science. Playfulness fosters trust, resilience, and learning, and it is crucial for building meaningful relationships, whether it’s with our students, colleagues, or parents.
People often associate joy, levity, or playfulness with losing control or chaos. However, playfulness doesn’t have to lead to disorder. In fact, there are countless ways to incorporate lightheartedness throughout our daily lives. Can you expand on this idea?
Certainly, one of the first questions I often pose to groups is why we hesitate to incorporate humor, laughter, and play into our work. The common concern is that things may spiral out of control or be inappropriate. But within Montessori settings, the answer is not to avoid these elements. Instead, we aim to model how to include humor, laughter, and play appropriately and inclusively, within well-defined boundaries.
Could you share an experience where you noticed a direct relationship between joy and levity, and effective student learning? Whether it was in one of your classrooms or something you observed while leading a school, do you have any relevant stories?
Play and levity should be a constant presence in our lives; they’re more of an attitude than a designated time slot. As children grow older, we may notice that they exhibit less overt joy and playfulness, which might lead us to mistakenly believe that they want more distance. However, playfulness remains important even in upper elementary environments.
The concept of variety is crucial for joy and playfulness. Our brains are wired to recognize patterns, and humor often comes from disrupting those patterns in a safe way. In early education, repetition is key, but in an elementary setting, variety becomes more significant.
One way to introduce variety and therefore joy into the classroom is by occasionally altering established routines. For instance, if you usually have a circle time at the end of the day that concludes with a song, you could surprise the students by starting the circle with that song instead. This simple change can delight students and create an opportunity for levity. Importantly, this is done in a way that models how to disrupt routine thoughtfully and appropriately.
Another example involves addressing common classroom annoyances in a playful manner. Perhaps the community is frustrated with the recurring issue of lost pencils. Addressing these small annoyances through humor or an unexpected approach can infuse the classroom environment with a sense of playfulness.
These small disruptions in routine or expectation are not just for fun; they also serve as teaching moments. They prompt discussions about why such changes are enjoyable and how constant changes might be disruptive rather than delightful. This helps students understand the balance between structure and spontaneity, enriching their educational experience.
Let’s take a closer look at the perennial issue of missing pencils. It’s a universal annoyance for teachers, not just those in Montessori settings. One playful way to tackle this is through “bad idea brainstorming,” which can be engaging for both adults and older elementary students. In this activity, the class collectively comes up with the worst possible solutions to the problem of disappearing pencils. Ideas might range from absurdities like gluing pencils to our hands to other outrageous solutions. The process is not just fun; it’s also enlightening. From this list of bad ideas, we can sometimes find the seed of a viable solution.
This approach contrasts sharply with more authoritarian methods where a problem is presented and a top-down solution is imposed. While there’s a time and place for decisive action, involving the community in problem-solving through playful methods can be highly effective. It allows everyone to engage in the process and often leads to more creative and acceptable solutions.
In Montessori, there are already playful activities in our albums. For instance, the “bring me” games in language activities, where you ask kids to bring you the pencil, and they bring you a blue one and you say “not that one…I meant the RED pencil” are inherently playful. The goal is to carry this spirit into every aspect of the school day. Improvisational activities, similar to charades, also fit wonderfully in this space. The students could write down prompts for their classmates, infusing play into daily lessons.
The concept of play can be integrated into the educational environment in numerous ways, especially for elementary students. For instance, breaking from routine occasionally, as previously mentioned, can inject a dose of fun into the day. More structured activities, like the bad idea brainstorming, provide opportunities for creativity and lateral thinking. Both methods offer students a break from the ordinary, stimulating their minds and making learning more enjoyable.
Incorporating play isn’t just about fun; it’s a vital aspect of fostering a thriving learning environment. These activities help build community, encourage creative problem-solving, and can even lead to more effective learning experiences.
Elementary-age children particularly respond well to humor and playfulness, making it an ideal stage to incorporate these elements into education. Given my background in comedic improvisation, I’ve found that improvisational games like charades offer a lot of potential for learning in a fun way.
For instance, in a classroom of first and second graders, we used slips of paper for an improvised game of animal charades. Each student wrote down animal names, folded the paper, and placed it in a basket. When a child drew a slip and acted out the animal, it wasn’t just a game; it was also an exercise in reading and comprehension. Because they had written the words themselves, even less fluent readers could participate fully.
Over time, this charades basket grew as more students added their own slips of paper. It became a resource for interactive, educational fun that also helped improve literacy skills. Children could either contribute to the communal box or maintain their own, particularly if they wanted to focus on words they had written. This variety allows us to adapt the activity to different learning needs while keeping the spirit of playfulness alive.
Could you share some examples of improv games that could be used in the classroom setting to facilitate student learning? I know you’ve already mentioned a couple, but do you have a few more you want to share?
One game that’s a big hit with students is “Fortunately, Unfortunately.” This exercise fosters creative storytelling while enhancing listening skills and collaborative thinking. It’s a fun and educational way to help students practice storytelling, understand plot development, and recognize the balance of conflict and resolution in narratives. In this game, participants take turns adding to a narrative, starting their sentences alternatively with “Fortunately” and “Unfortunately.”
Any more improv games you’d like to share?
Another game to consider is “Word at a Time Story,” where each student contributes just one word to an ongoing story. In this game, we create a story based on a title we come up with. The catch is that we can only contribute one word at a time. For example, I say one word, then you say the next word, and so on. It’s hard to plan the story, which often leads to unique and unpredictable outcomes. To guide the activity, I usually start the story with “Once upon a time,” and we know to wrap it up when someone says, “The moral of the story is.”It challenges students to actively listen and adapt quickly, working as a team to create a coherent narrative.
Yet another game is “Yes, And…,” which is a cornerstone in improv. Students pair up, and one starts a sentence like, “We’re going on a field trip,” and the other has to respond with “Yes, and…” followed by a contribution to the idea.
These games offer not just levity and enjoyment but are also effective tools for enhancing language skills, creativity, teamwork, and even critical thinking.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk a little bit about joy and levity as related to adults. How do you foster joy and resilience among adults in your community, especially during difficult times?
Joy, levity, and laughter aren’t just pleasant when times are good; they’re essential when times are tough. These moments reinforce trust and connection within a community. For example, sharing laughter can be likened to making small deposits in a “Trust Bank” with each other. Small gestures like leaving a note on someone’s desk can make a significant impact on community well-being.
When it comes to building a positive culture, I have several key principles. The first comes from improv: the idea of “Failing with Flair.” This mindset helps us approach unexpected outcomes with humor and grace, reinforcing a culture of levity.
The second principle is the value of play. Contrary to the belief that playfulness undermines seriousness, it’s actually an integral part of effective teaching and community-building.
Thirdly, being present contributes to joy and levity. This presence can be about noticing small details—like a funny saying on someone’s t-shirt or a peculiar turn of phrase. It’s about being in the moment, which dovetails nicely with the practice of mindfulness.
I recall a time during a tense parent meeting when a grasshopper unexpectedly appeared, pausing our discussion and diffusing the tension. It reminded us that sometimes, being in the present can offer a much-needed reprieve.
Lastly, the principle of gratitude adds lightness to our being, making it easier to find levity even in challenging times. So in a nutshell, fostering joy and resilience, especially during difficult times, is a multi-faceted effort that enriches community bonds.
It seems you’ve successfully merged your personal passion for improv with your professional life as a Montessori educator. Can you share more about this journey? What inspired you to blend these areas, and how has it impacted your level of contentment in both?
This is something I’m deeply passionate about—the idea of pursuing one’s passions. I know this is important to you as well. At some point in our life or career journey, we each pause and ask, “What is my unique gift?” For me, that question was, “What’s my unique contribution to Montessori and the world at large?” This is aligned with the Montessori concept of cosmic education, asking what our cosmic mission or gift is. Reflecting on this not only brings us more contentment but also serves as a model for our students. How can we help them reach their fullest potential if we aren’t doing the same?
The first step is understanding the ‘why.’ Why is it important to work towards our fullest potential? This is fundamental to us as Montessorians. The next difficult question is, ‘What is our gift?’ For years, I enjoyed making people laugh and appreciated humor, but I wasn’t sure how to incorporate this professionally. It felt like it would always be a side gig. I spent many years working as a Montessori Head of School during the day and performing improv comedy at night. I kept these worlds separate because I didn’t want my role as a school head to conflict with my comedic pursuits.
However, after spending 15 years in Belgium, I moved back to the States. Realizing that I was less known in the American Montessori community, I decided it was time to merge these two worlds and see what would happen. That’s how the idea of integrating improv and Montessori came to life. I was fortunate to find a way to bring these passions together. For those seeking to do the same, I recommend a lot of self-reflection and conversations with others. Ask people what they see as your gifts and what they value in you as a colleague, teacher, or person.
I’ve been collecting games, team-building activities, and logic puzzles that bring an element of surprise for decades. I even have a notebook where I jot down these ideas. Now that I’m in a position to share these ideas more formally, I’ve revisited this notebook. This was my own clue that I had a passion for this. So, I’d encourage everyone to pay attention to where their mind naturally wanders; that’s your clue. Another piece of advice is not to wait for permission. For a long time, I was waiting for someone to ask me to share my improv activities. When that didn’t happen, I started offering to do team-building exercises, and people began to understand my unique gifts only after they saw them in action.
When I work with schools and various groups, I bring a sense of joy and levity that they didn’t even realize they were missing. That significantly brightens their experience. Especially in professional development sessions, leaders often tell me that their teams have been carrying a heavy load and just need to play together. Initially, participants might dread the idea of team-building or improv, thinking it will be awkward. Yet, every single time, I receive overwhelmingly positive feedback about how the session made them laugh and feel more connected.
You can learn more about Lisa at Tilt Think.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.