Playing in the “Just Right” Zone

The following is an excerpt from one of my favorite blogs Unwrapping the Gifted. I finally had the pleasure of meeting its author, Tamara Fisher, last fall at the NAGC Annual Convention in St. Louis!

In her recent post All in the Name of “Fun,” Tamara asked her gifted students to respond to the following prompt:
“When I say that something in school or GT (Gifted and Talented) is fun, what I mean by fun is…”

The following are student responses from 1st through 12th graders (all names are student-selected pseudonyms):

“It’s really thinkable.” ~Cal, 1st grade~

“It’s fun when you’re solving. It’s fun because it’s a hard job.” ~Tallen, 1st grade~

“If everything you did was easy all the time, you wouldn’t learn anything. But learning is fun, so being challenged is fun.” ~Dorothy, 1st grade~

“Fun means you get to learn something that is outside of the school box.” ~Bubba, 5th grade~

“What I mean by ‘fun’ is it’s challenging.” ~Sally, 5th grade~

“If something is fun, it’s mind-boggling, awesome, and hard. You get to use strategic thinking to solve things.” ~Margaret, 5th grade~

“Fun to me really means that I like the challenge of something. I like knowing I’m not as smart as I seem and that I can get things wrong. That’s the best part! Yes, finding my limits is fun!” ~Laine, 5th grade~

“Fun means I’m actually challenged. In other classes I’m basically automatic, which is very boring” ~Lillian, 5th grade~

“To me, if something is fun it means it is a challenge that I can enjoy, not like the challenge of doing loads of easy work or the challenge of staying awake in boring parts of school.” ~Jelly, 5th grade~

“Fun means it’s challenging and you’re going to have to think.” ~Goldilocks, 5th grade~

“When I say that GT is fun, I mean that it stretches my mind and lets me be myself. It also teaches me that it is okay to make mistakes so I don’t get frustrated and can relax and learn at the same time.” ~Onyx, 5th grade~

“Fun means it’s challenging but not too challenging. It means something is in my ‘just right’ zone.” ~Annie, 5th grade~

“If something is fun, it means it challenged me in a fun way or proved my ability or showed me a different way to think about something that I hadn’t realized before.” ~Michelle, 7th grade~

“It means it is challenging, enjoyable, and worth the time I put into it.” ~Ailie, 7th grade~

“What I actually mean by ‘fun’ is that it was challenging. When I get it, I have a sense of victory and growth.” ~Keegyn, 8th grade~

“I am happy that I can achieve what is set in front of me and this in turn is fun to me. Normally this involves a challenge, which makes me strive to beat the challenge. In essence, it’s just proving to yourself you can do it.” ~Andrew, 10th grade~

“Fun means that it is something that makes me think. It’s a puzzle, situation, or debate, etc., that challenges me to look at something in a new way. It also encompasses looking at something through another person’s perspective.” ~Stewie, 11th grade~

“Fun is a rating of accomplishment. When an activity is fun for me, it is usually a challenge that I had to think through and defeat. Doing 40 math problems with little change between them, though accomplishing something, is drab and not fun because I didn’t have to think and therefore did not feel challenged.” ~Garrett, 12th grade~

The student quotes shared here on the meaning of “fun” are fantastic, and very telling.  Interestingly, these gifted students who range from ages 6-18 almost all use the word “challenge” when describing their idea of fun in school.  I’d argue that for ALL learners, having opportunities to explore and muck about in that “just right zone” is the best way to build confidence and stretch to new challenges organically– and what safer way to stretch the boundaries of one’s thinking than through play?

When new challenges are presented in the context of a non-threatening game, students are compelled to push their limits because, let’s face it, winning is fun!  And on the flip side, if you don’t nail it this time there’s no penalty, no failure, because it’s just a game!

Giving students these opportunities to stretch their thinking in this safe “play” space allows them to, as “Bubba” so eloquently puts it, “think outside the school box” … what could be more fun!?

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