Everything I needed to know about learning, I learned at an amusement park.
Well, maybe not everything, but my recent experience with my students at a local amusement park reminded me of a few important things that these spaces can teach us about learning:
The flashing lights, the constant music, the smells from the concession stand. Amusement parks know how to engage their audience in a myriad of ways. But the engagement is not just about ways to spend your money. The park offers freedom and flexibility, yet still has defined boundaries. Park goers are given freedom to explore on their own or in small groups and a flexible schedule for this exploration. Initially, some riders race from attraction to attraction like a checklist of accomplishments, while others are more reserved and watch a ride or two before hopping on. But all participants stay within the park, come back to a central meeting place and share their experiences, often encouraging others to join them or try the rides on their own.
Do our classrooms offer this same freedom and flexibility? Learners are exploring ideas on their own, and sharing their findings with others – do we offer them the chance to inspire others to join in their learning and revisit the ‘park’ again with a new understanding or new participants? Are we showing learners how to engage with the environment and learn from the spaces around them?
An amusement park offers a range of experiences, from the spinning ferris wheel and swings to the steep drops and breakneck turns of a roller coaster. Yet everyone has access to a ride that offers a feeling of safety and familiarity, and everyone can equally find a ride that makes them feel unsettled and anxious. At the park, these feelings are considered natural and even celebrated by peers – peers who are challenging themselves individually to ‘conquer’ a ride, yet are also excited to share in the accomplishments of others who have achieved something they could not yet do.
Do students and teachers recognize and celebrate the same range of feelings that exist in classroom learning experiences? Do all learners have access to experiences that are familiar and needed to ground us, yet also have experiences that individually challenge and engage us in a new, perhaps unsettling way?
Stretching comfort zones:
Fear. We all have it and amusement parks bring our fear to the forefront and normalize or even celebrate this emotion. Everyone has their nemesis attraction: for me, it is the spinning ride that seems to go nowhere; for others, it’s the ride that twists and lurches them upside down. And at the park, we openly talk about our fears and encourage others to overcome theirs. We stretch our own and others’ comfort zones and celebrate our accomplishments. Yet, the park also allows us to realize that fear changes: sometimes we are afraid of something we’ve never tried before (riding the coaster) and sometimes we are afraid of doing something we’ve already done but will be doing it in a slightly different way (putting our hands up or sitting in the front car).
How often do our classrooms include conversations about what we are most fearful of? Do we provide encouragement for everyone to identify their comfort zone and challenge themselves to push a little beyond? Are learners reminded that comfort zones are always changing with new situations and new perspectives? Do we recognize and celebrate when we need to be in our comfort zone? Solid ground feels good for a reason – we all need to take a break from the ‘rides’ and appreciate our safe spaces.
Mindfulness and self-regulation:
Live in the moment. I’m sure that’s the motto of many amusement parks because that’s all you can do when you are on a ride. There’s no turning back when you’re strapped in at the top of the hill. Just hold on and truly experience the moment. Yet our body also cannot live in an eternal state of heightened anxiety or overstimulation. Our body prefers the middle – homeostasis – and we react to the amusement park triggers. We start to breathe more deeply, we walk around the park to take a break, or we sit at a quiet table to find a time out away from some of the noise. Park designers recognize these needs and provide shelters, picnic tables, indoor attractions, and green spaces to allow park goers to regulate their experiences while still remaining inside the gates.
How often do our students ‘lose’ themselves in our classrooms and truly experience the moment? Do our students recognize the triggers in their own learning spaces and seek ways to regulate themselves? Are adequate spaces and strategies designed, provided, and accepted to keep all participants engaged?
Reflection and celebration:
Amusement parks. Their purpose is to amuse, to provide joy and excitement regardless of age, and to provide rides that continually challenge our boundaries and allow us to feel a sense of accomplishment. Adults visit amusement parks of their youth with their own children, to re-live and to share their experiences in a way that often astounds younger riders. I remember my teacher going on a roller coaster with me in Grade 8 and being amazed, and I saw the same amazement on the faces of my students when they saw me sharing in their joy, fear, excitement and accomplishment as we experienced the rides together.
So my day at the park was a great reminder to ensure that my students always see me as a ride-goer – someone who is truly a participant with them, always willing to learn with and from them, to openly share my worries and fears, to push myself and them to go beyond our perceived boundaries, and to celebrate in our individual and shared accomplishments.
And, most importantly, to hold on and enjoy our moments together!