‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people’. (Victor Borge)
Some years ago, four-year-old Thea arrived at our pre-school. From the day she arrived, she didn’t say a word. Her language at home was good, but being away from her family was highly stressful, and her coping strategy was not to speak.
We welcomed her warmly and observed her keenly. We spoke with her parents. We provided a safe and secure place for her to come to, and she was loved and nurtured. But she still didn’t speak.
After a few weeks, I sat with her as she coloured with felt tips on her own. I was worried for her. Her parents were lovely people, and full of laughter. I wondered if laughter might be the answer.
Sitting opposite her, I picked up a felt tip and drew some circles onto a piece of paper. After a minute or two I started drawing on my hand. “Oh, dear, naughty pen,” I commented to myself. I checked out Thea’s reaction and saw a tiny smile tug at her mouth. We carried on colouring. A minute later I started to draw up my arm. “Naughty pen!” I said sternly to the pen. I could see Thea smiling in earnest now. I drew up one arm, down the other one, and finally drew a dot on my nose. Thea burst out laughing. The sound of her laughter set me off, and we laughed helplessly together. “Naughty pen!” said Thea. The ‘naughty pen’ put some dots on her hand, which made her laugh even harder. By this time, both of us were laughing so much that everyone came over to see what was happening. From that day on, Thea spoke at pre-school.
The effect of laughter
Laughter changes our mood. It induces the release of endorphins that help with pain, stress, anxiety and depression. It can even boost our immune system. What’s more, laughter gives us energy and almost always provides positive responses from adults and children alike. Laughter connects us.
And yet it is something that is neglected by educators. It isn’t included in national curriculums or on teaching courses. It’s as if laughter needs to be avoided, or restricted to a ‘sensible’ limit or we’ll all be having far too much fun to be learning.
This makes no sense at all. The benefits of laughter are profound. Laughter isn’t just a reaction to something funny. It is a form of communication, a vital slice of social behaviour.
You see, the frequency of our laughter has an effect on a child’s laughter. A sense of humour is learned from the people around us. As practitioners, we need to be ‘laughter models’ in the setting. We need to take laughter seriously. If it becomes part and parcel of interactions in the setting, we are creating an environment that is laughter-rich.
What can we do to create a laughter-rich environment?
- We become laughter models. This doesn’t mean that we ‘fake’ laughter. We must laugh because we find something genuinely funny.
- We engage in activities that guarantee laughter, e.g. chasing and popping bubbles, or getting the puppets out, singing the wrong words to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. (This was a popular one. I sang “Wrinkle, Wrinkle, Little Car” and the children fell into hysterical laughter!)
- We tell the children how much we enjoy laughing with them. “That’s so funny, you made me laugh!”
- We read funny books together and show our mirth by wiping our eyes or sighing happily. We model saying how funny the book is. “That is so funny!”
We can be so wary of laughter, seeing it as something ‘silly’ or ‘out of control’, worrying that there will be too much noise. Then we miss the wonder of it. Laughter brings joy. It’s as simple as that! And when little Thea laughed out loud all those years ago, it opened a door, and Thea entered into our world.
When we are intentional about laughter, we build a joyful learning environment. Listen to the sound of children’s laughter in your setting today. Go and see what they are laughing about. You can rest assured that brains are being filled with positive, life-enhancing endorphins, boosting their wellbeing and connecting them to others.
This is positive learning at its very best!
About the author
Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced Early Years consultant. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 and cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she has written a book, ‘Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a guide for practitioners’. She has also co-written an Early Years curriculum and assessment tool, at present being implemented in India. Helen is also on the Think Equal team, a global initiative led by Leslee Udwin, developing empathy in pre-schools and schools across the world.