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How Do You Find Joy in Teaching and Living?

“Find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing.

For to miss the joy is to miss all.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

My original title for this post was, “How do you bring joy to teaching and living?”. But, that implies we have enough joy within us to share with others. The last two years left me, and perhaps you too, feeling utterly depleted. My joy, creativity, and energy levels were all on “empty”.

So… my priority this summer has been to “fill my tank” – to find joy that nourishes my body and spirit so I can bring it to my teaching this fall.

That has meant soaking up every minute of summer sunlight, reading at the beach, playing the piano, talking long walks under towering trees, and sharing leisurely conversations with friends.

And, it has meant savoring the joyful giggles of children playing chase, catching bubbles, or cooking in a mud kitchen while teaching summer camp.

While I am no longer running on “empty”, I am grateful there are a few more weeks of summer left to bring my gauge to “full” or even “overflowing”.


Several years ago, I watched a Ted Talk by designer Ingrid Fetell Lee about joy. She became interested in this concept as a first-year design student when her professor said that her designs made him feel joyful but he could not explain why. She embarked on a 10-year journey to explore the relationship between the physical world and the intangible feeling of joy.

She learned that scientists define joy as“an intense momentary experience of positive emotion”. Unlike happiness, which measures how good we feel over time, joy is about how we feel in the moment. Lee realized that in pursuing happiness, adults often overlook moments of joy. In my experience, children never miss a moment of joy. That is one of many lessons they can teach us…

Lee’s research found that certain things are joyful for nearly everyone. And those universally joyful things share specific, aesthetic elements:

  • Round things: like bubbles, balloons, and cherry blossoms

  • Pops of color: like rainbows, fireworks, and ice cream with sprinkles

  • A sense of abundance: like piles of leaves, bouquets of flowers, and handfuls of confetti

  • A feeling of lightness: like clouds, cotton candy, and hot air balloons

That explains why summer is so joyful for me. Nature is filled with pops of color. The clouds are light and fluffy, unlike the heavy gray ones that blanket Chicago skies in winter. There is an abundance of warmth and daylight, and - because I have the luxury of a summer vacation – an abundance of time compared with the rest of the year.


My focus on joy also prompted me to ponder Malaguzzi’s famous quote, “Nothing without joy”. Anyone who has spent time in an early childhood classroom knows that it is filled with the full range of human emotions, not just joy.

There is frustration when a carefully constructed block tower falls down or putting on winter gear feels like an impossible task. There is anger when a friend takes a favorite toy or chooses to play with someone else. There is sadness when a game of chase results in a skinned knee or a yearning for family becomes overwhelming.

So what did Malguzzi mean?

I believe that he was speaking, not of the spectrum of children's emotions, but of their right to learn through a process that is inherently joyful – play.

Malaguzzi expressed the essential connection between joy and play in a 1993 article Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins:

“We have to let children be with children… Children love to learn among themselves, and they learn things it would never be possible to learn from interactions with an adult.”

And when we let children be with children - they play.

He is quoted expressing the same sentiment more starkly in the book In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: “The child dies if we take away from him the joy of questioning, examining, and exploring.”

Play and joy are inextricably linked. Play is the process, the context, through which joy can emerge.

All of the ways I am finding joy are a form of play. They meet the criteria that psychologists and researchers use to define play: self-chosen, self-structured, process oriented, engaging, and most importantly, joyful.


Joy is essential.

As Ingrid Fetell Lee said so eloquently, “Joy isn’t some superfluous extra…. On the most basic level, the drive toward joy is the drive toward life.”

How are you finding joy this summer?

I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.


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