I sometimes do this thing at the end of my classes with 3 year-olds where I pretend to pop a piece of bubble gum in my mouth, start chewing away, blow a huge bubble, and then it pops all over my face. I pretend to pick it all off my face and start chewing it again. The kids (well, 83% of them) go nuts, rolling around on the floor laughing, asking me to do it again and again, taking turns popping my imaginary bubble, and then blowing their own bubbles. We can talk about what flavor we are going to chew, how big should we make the bubble ("Bigger?! YEAH!!!"), cleaning it off the different parts of our faces ("Oh no, it's in your ear! Ewwwww!!"). And it just doesn't seem to get old. The 2 year-olds don't find it remotely interesting ("What the heck is Devon doing?"), and about 39% of the 4 year-olds get a chuckle out of it (but the other kids kind of look at them like "what are you laughing at?" The 4 year-olds' favorite seems to be when I get my name wrong). But, I'll tell you, it's a homerun with the 3 year-olds.
Check out this great short piece from Paul McGhee on what makes children laugh (pdf file), adapted from his book Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children's Humor.
Also check out an article in this week's Washington Post Magazine, The Peekaboo Paradox. It's an interesting read about a performer for kids' parties in D.C. I'm sure it will be optioned and we'll be seeing the Peekaboo Paradox at a megaplex near you sometime soon, starring Brad Pitt as the lovable children's performer with a gambling addiction. Anyway, it contains some interesting perspectives on children's humor:
--Even before they respond to a tickle, most babies will laugh at peekaboo. It's their first "joke." They are reacting to a sequence of events that begins with the presence of a familiar, comforting face. Then, suddenly, the face disappears, and you can read in the baby's expression momentary puzzlement and alarm. When the face suddenly reappears, everything is orderly in the baby's world again. Anxiety is banished, and the baby reacts with her very first laugh.
At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.
This point has been made by experts ranging from Richard Pryor to doctoral candidates writing tedious theses on the ontol-ogical basis of humor. Any joke, any amusing observation, can be deconstructed to fit. The seemingly benign Henny Youngman one-liner, "Take my wife . . . please!" relies in its heart on an understanding that love can become a straitjacket. By laughing at that recognition, you are rising above it, and blunting its power to disturb.
After the peekaboo age, but before the age of such sophisticated understanding, dwells the preschooler. His sense of humor is more than infantile but less than truly perceptive. He comprehends irony but not sarcasm. He lacks knowledge but not feeling. The central fact of his world -- and the central terror to be overcome -- is his own powerlessness. --
Humor obviously plays a large role in early childhood education. The world can be a very scary place for adults, let alone youngsters, especially when Mommy and Daddy aren't there (I mean for the kids, not me...no really). Humor is more than a chance to just be silly for a while, it's reassuring, comforting, and it allows kids to get to a place where they are receptive to all kinds of learning. When you are around children all the time, you have an unspoken understanding of what is funny. It's interesting to see it put in to words, and a good thing for folks who work with kids to remind themselves of from time to time.
Occasionally I'll read the reviews of chidren's CDs on a site like Amazon.com, and I'll see a comment like, "I don't know why everyone likes this...my 2 year-old listened to it once and that was it!" And then you listen to the recording and it's full of riddles and word play and things simply beyond what your average 2 year-old is likely to find amusing. If you are a parent, teacher, or children's music artist, know your audience and understand that just because something is labeled as children's music, it doesn't mean it appeals to or is intended for all children. That sounds obvious, but if you are a teacher struggling with a particular group of students, ask yourself if you are communicating with them at their level. You may be suprised to realize that time you recently spent teaching a different group of children changed your sense of what is amusing or interesting, and you simply need to re-calibrate.