Laughter and having fun

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Professor Cathy Nutbrown revels in the delights of children's humour

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Marcus has a question: ‘What did Humpty Dumpty go?’ He also has the answer: ‘BONK, BONK!’

This question, asked and answered by a smiling four-year-old, is Marcus’s new joke. Marcus has only just learned about jokes; he discovered them when the adults were reading jokes from Christmas crackers a few weeks ago. Now he makes his own jokes whenever he can. He knows some of the rules about jokes. He knows that making a joke involves something funny, and that when they are told, people laugh.

When children discover jokes and make their own attempts at humour, it is for them as if theirs is the first joke ever told. They have made an important discovery. And the more children come to know, the better placed they are to play with the things they know and make humour.

Switching things around – so they are not quite correct – can be very funny to young children. For example, the big teddy is lying with his head and feet sticking out of the tiny bed in the house play corner. This is a favourite occupation of Sora who at the moment enjoys playing with ideas of size. She smiles as she puts the bears into the bed that is far too small, then, still beaming, goes to get her key worker. ‘Look!’ she giggles. Her key worker giggles too, understanding Sora’s fun and pleasure and sharing it with her.

Ahmed enjoys mismatching things. He puts a picture of a goldfish next to the picture of a dog’s bed. He places the tractor next to the lake (instead of the field) and he puts the pigeon in a boat (instead of the tree). He smiles as he thinks about where these might look funniest, pokes his friend’s arm and points. ‘Look!’ he laughs, ‘look!’ ‘They’re wrong,’ says Ruby. ‘No,’ says Ahmed. ‘They’re not wrong, they’re funny.’

Chris Athey often identified elements of humour and fun – where children enjoyed using what they knew to make a joke. She often talked about children getting to the point where they knew something so well that they could play with it.

We need to remember this, for as they come to know and feel confident with more and more ideas, they may well start to play and manipulate those ideas – to make things funny, to joke. Children’s humour tells us much. And these are things that no test can ever do justice to.

Enjoy the humour and playfulness of the children you live and work with. Their humour comes from their newfound wisdom.

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