Amy Parks, Ph.D., Constructing Joyful Mathematics Classrooms

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


Teaching is a complex and challenging job. It’s also one where educators experience moments of deep joy and satisfaction. What might it look like to build a culture of joy in an elementary mathematics classroom? Michigan State professor Amy Parks has some ideas. Today on the podcast we explore ways educators can construct joyful experiences for their young mathematics learners.

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Amy Noelle Parks is interested in young children's mathematical experiences, both in and out of schools. She is particularly concerned with representing the experiences of children from marginalized groups in the research literature and with promoting humane schooling practices for all children. Her current projects include investigations of the role of play in mathematical learning, the resources parents draw on when supporting their children in mathematics, connections between emotional relationships and content learning in primary classrooms, and the mathematical engagements that are possible in informal spaces.


Mike Wallus: Teaching is a complex and challenging job. It's also one where educators experience moments of deep joy and satisfaction. What might it look like to build a culture of joy in an elementary mathematics classroom? Michigan State professor Amy Parks has some ideas. Today on the podcast, we explore ways educators can construct joyful experiences for their youngest mathematics learners. 

Mike: Well, welcome to the podcast, Amy. I'm so excited to be talking with you about joy in the elementary mathematics classroom.

Amy Parks: I'm so happy to be here.

Mike: So, your article in MTLT was titled, “Creating Joy in PK–Grade 2 Mathematics Classrooms.” And early on, you draw the distinction between math classrooms where students are experiencing joy and those that are fun. And you quote Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, who say, “Being joyful is not just about having more fun. We're talking about a more empathic, more empowered, more spiritual state of mind that's totally engaged with the world.” That really is powerful. So, I'm wondering if you could tell me about the difference between classrooms that foster joy and those that are just more fun.

Amy: Yeah, I was very struck by that quote when I read it the first time in “The Book of Joy.” And I think one of the reasons that book is powerful for me is that the two people writing it didn't have these super easy lives, right? Particularly the Archbishop Desmond Tutu was imprisoned in the country that was openly hostile to him, and yet he was still really committed to approaching his work and the world with joy. And so, I often think if he could do that, then surely the rest of us can get up and do that. And it also tied into something I often see in elementary classrooms, which is this focus on activities that are fun, like sugary cereal, right? They're immediately attractive, but they don't stick with us, and maybe they're not really good for us. I often think the prototypical example is, like, analyses of packets of M&Ms. When I think about the intellectual energy that has gone into counting and sorting and defining colors of M&Ms, it makes me a little sad, given all the big questions that are out there that even really young kids can engage with. And so, yes, I want children to be playful and to laugh and to engage with materials they enjoy. But also, I think there is this quieter kind of joy that comes from making mathematical connections, and understanding the world in new ways, and grasping the thinking and ideas of others. And so, when I'm pointing toward joy, that's part of what I'm trying to point toward.

Mike: So, I want to dig into this a little bit more because one of your first recommendations for sparking joy is this idea that we need to make some room for play. And my guess is that that raises many questions for elementary educators, like “What do you mean by play?” and “What role does the teacher play in play?” Can you talk a little bit about this recommendation, Amy?

Amy: Yeah. So, when I have more time than that very short article to talk about, one of the things that I like to bring out to teachers is that we can think of play in sort of three broad buckets. So, one is “free play,” and this is an area where the teacher may not have a lot of roles except to sort of define health and safety limits. So certainly, recess is a place of free play. But there are places at recess where children are encountering mathematical ideas, right? They are walking in straight lines, and they're balancing on things, and they're seeing whether they all have the same amount of materials and toys. So, those are all mathematical contexts that we can—as teachers—later bring in and highlight in places where they can engage. But they're not places where teachers are setting learning goals and reinforcing things. And particularly in the lower grades, we might see, also, free play opportunities in the classroom.

You know, many kindergarten classrooms have opportunities for free play during the school day. So, while kids are playing in the kitchen for example, or doing puzzles, they may be again encountering mathematical ideas and teachers certainly can capitalize on that. But they're not directing or shaping the play. And then there are these two other categories where the teacher's role is maybe more present. So, one I would call “guided play.” And this is a case where the teacher and the children are really handing responsibility back and forth. So, the teacher might set up a relatively open-ended task like pattern block puzzles or a commercial game that gets at counting or something like that. And so, the teacher has an intended mathematical goal. She has set some limits to keep children focused on that in some way. But the task is in the hands of the kids. They're playing together, they're negotiating roles, they have that more central responsibility. And the learning goals may be a little bit broader and more open because of that. Because since you're not centrally involved, you can't be so specific.

And then the last kind of play I talk with teachers about are “playful lessons.” Children might not have as much choice in the activity that they do. They might not be able to stop and start it or move in certain ways, but teachers are intentionally bringing aspects of play into the mathematics lesson. And that could be by using engaging materials. It could be by creating places for creativity. It could be by creating spaces for social collaboration. It could be just by inviting children to use their bodies in ways that are comfortable to them instead of being really constrained. But the mathematical task might be much more specific and like, “Build this cube and identify the vertices on it.” So, the task is constrained, but because they're using materials, because they can do it in different ways, there's this playful aspect to it. So, I like to encourage teachers to sort of think about those three buckets of play and where kids are getting access to them during the day.

Mike: Yeah, I think that's really helpful. Because I did teach kindergarten for a long time, and so I think my definition of play was really the first one that you were talking about, which is free play. But hearing you talk about the other two definitions actually helps open space up for me. I feel like with that broader definition, it helps me consider the choices that I've got in front of me.

Amy: Yeah, and if you talk [to]—or read even—mathematicians, they will often talk about playing with ideas. So, there is a part of play that is inherently mathematical, the part that is about experimenting, and investigating, and trying things out, and recognizing that you might be wrong, and getting this engagement from others. So, I think sometimes even mathematics lessons that look relatively traditional can also have this playful spirit if we bring that to it.

Mike: I would love to talk to you a little bit about the way that choice can be a key component in sparking joy. So, what are some of the options that teachers have at their disposal to offer choice to learners in their classrooms?

Amy: Yeah, I think that this is something that's often overlooked. And I think that for kids in school right now, they often have so few choices. Their experiences are often so constrained by adults. And simply by allowing children to choose—when they can—we can make experiences more joyful for them. So, one easy thing is who or whether children will work with other people, right? So yes, there are all kinds of benefits to group tasks and social interactions. But also, lots of children are introverts, and being in a small room for six hours a day with 25 other people can be exhausting. And so, simply giving the children the choice to say, “I'm going to do this one on my own,” can be a huge relief to some children. Other children, like, need to talk—just like other adults—talk to others to know what they're thinking. And so, they need these groups.

And then I think also teachers can get really involved in choosing the magic right group, but often there is no magic right group—as we know because we're constantly rejuggling these groups because they didn't work in the magic way we thought. And so, just letting kids pick their groups, because then they have responsibility for that interaction. And it's not that they never have difficult social interactions, but they've chosen to be with this person and they have to work through it. So that's one. The other thing is letting children choose physically where they work. Some children lie on the floor while they work, or some children stand up at their seat. Allowing some choice in freedom of movement doesn't mean allowing total chaos. And I think even pretty young children can be taught that they can move within limits in the classroom. And I think if children get to stop expending so much energy trying to control their bodies in the ways adults find helpful, they can engage more fully in the academics of the day.

And then, like, choices of materials. So, we can make different things available to kids as they engage with mathematics. Choices of problems—they may choose to do some and not others. Lower grades like using centers. If we have multiple centers that all get at the same mathematical idea, maybe it doesn't actually matter whether all kids get to all of them, right? As long as they're engaging with making units of 10, however they're doing that, can work for us. So, I think in general, the more often we can give children choices about anything, the better off all of us are.

Mike: I think that last bit is really interesting. I just want to pause for a second on it. Because what you've got me thinking is, if I have options available and they're all really addressing some of the same mathematical goals or a range of goals that I have in my class, this idea that I can release control and invite kids to make choices, that seems like a really practical first step that a teacher could take to think about, “What are the options? What are the goals that they meet?” and then, “To what degree can I offer those as choices?”

Amy: Yeah, and in a really basic way, right? Sometimes we might have a game that works with kids on making 10s, and then other times we might have a project or even a worksheet. And different kids may be drawn to those different things. There are some kids for whom games might be really exciting, but there are some kids for whom games might be really stressful, and they would just rather do something else. And that's fine because the point isn't actually playing the game, right?

Mike: I think that's really interesting. I could get so caught up as a teacher sometimes trying to get the mechanics of getting kids out to places, and getting kids started, and making sure that kids were doing the thing, that I would sometimes lose track of, “My point in doing this is to have kids think about structuring 10 or making sense of fractions.” That's a lovely reminder. I really appreciate that. I think that this is a really nice turning point because this question about choice actually plays into one of the other recommendations you had regarding time on task. So, I would love to have you unpack your thinking on this topic, Amy.

Amy: Yeah. Well, you talked about being autobiographical, and this is definitely autobiographical for me because I am very on task. I like to get things done. I like to check things off my list. And that was definitely a force for me when I was teaching. And I think it was something that, one, caused anxiety for me and my kids, and two, limited our opportunities to engage in more playful ways and more joyful ways to follow curiosities because I was so worried about that. And honestly, when it came home to me was when I started teaching university students because I think it is a little harder to clap your hands at 19-year-olds and tell them to get back to work than to do it with 7-year-olds. And what I realized was, if I step back and I let my students talk about “The Bachelor” for a minute, they would have the conversation and then they would move on to the mathematical task, and I actually didn't need to intervene. And me intervening would've shifted the emotional tone of the class in a way that would not have been productive for learning, right?

They would've become resentful or maybe felt self-conscious. And now I have this thing in the way as opposed to just letting them have that break. And I think if we pay attention as adults to how we are in staff meetings or how we are in professional development, we recognize we have a lot of informal conversations around the work we do, and that those informal conversations are not distractions. They're actually, like, building the relationships that let us do the work. And it is similarly true for children. And then I think another thing to remember about particularly young children is language learning, social relationships, all of those are things they actually need to develop. That's part of our work as teachers is to help them grow in those things. And so, giving them the opportunity to build those relationships is, in fact, part of our work.

Mike: I think that's really interesting because I found myself, as you were talking, thinking through my own day. When I log into Zoom to talk to someone across the country, we don't immediately start just working through our agenda. We exchange pleasantries, we tell a joke or two, we talk about what's going on in our world, and we can have an incredibly productive chunk of time. But there are these pieces of social reality that kind of bind us together as people, right? When I'm talking to my friend Nataki in North Carolina, I'm asking her about her son. That might take two minutes out of 55. We've still done a tremendous amount of work and thought deeply about the kind of professional learning we want to provide to teachers. But there's the reality that if we didn't do that, how are we connected? If we're partnering to do this work, there's something about being connected to the other person that we can't schedule out of the experience of working together. Does that make sense?

Amy: Yeah, a hundred percent. And it's true in classroom settings, too. I was thinking the “Batman” movie, the Ben Affleck one, was filmed in Detroit, and they happened to be filming right outside the building where I was teaching. And at some point, one of my adult students looked out the window and was, like, “There's Ben Affleck!” And of course, all of my students got up and went to the window. I could have, as the teacher, been, like, “OK, sit down. We're doing whatever we're doing.” But their minds were all going to be on Ben Affleck out the window. And so instead, we stopped and we watched the movie for a little bit, and that became an experience we came back to as a class over and over in the semester. “Remember when that happened?” And so, yeah, that pressure to be productive, I think, often interferes with the relationship building that does support good work among adult colleagues and among kids in classrooms. And I would also connect it to the opening conversation on play.

Mike: So, before we close the interview, I'm wondering if you have any recommendations for someone who wants to continue learning about how they could design opportunities for joy in their classrooms. Are there any resources that you would point a listener to?

Amy: I mean, I have a book on play in early mathematics, and that would certainly be a place that someone could start. But, you know, the other thing that I might do is just look at some of the great materials that are out there, both like physical things like LEGO [bricks] and magnet tiles, which often if you don't have at your school, you can get through thrift stores and things. And just bringing them into classrooms and seeing what kids do with them. Oh, the other thing that I always recommend is looking at some of the resources on “soft starts.” And if you just Google this, you'll see videos and articles. And this is often a really, like, nonthreatening way for teachers who are interested in this but haven't done a lot of play in their classrooms to begin. 

And the idea is instead of immediately starting with a worksheet or whatever, that you bring in some kind of toy or tool, and maybe children can make some choices about whether they're going to paint or they're going to work on a puzzle, and you just take 15 minutes and that's how you begin the day. And people who have done this, so many people have said it's just been such a lovely culture shift in their classroom, and it also means that [if] children are coming in a little late, it's fine. They can just come in and join, and then everyone's ready to go 15 minutes later, and you really haven't given up that much of your day. So, I think that can be a really, a really smooth entry into this if you're interested.

Mike: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining us, Amy. It really has been a pleasure talking with you.

Amy: Oh, you, too. It was so fun.

Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation, dedicated to inspiring and enabling individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.