In the video below, I share what inspired me to review the literature on joyful learning with these questions in mind:

1. What is joyful learning?

2. Is joyful learning a social justice imperative?

3. How does joyful learning contribute to a socially-just education?

Because both social justice and joyful learning are complex and difficult to define, I took an interdisciplinary approach to reviewing the literature on these two concepts.

Although conceptions of joyful learning varied across the literature, there were common themes about what joyful learning IS NOT. Knowing what joyful learning isn’t informs our understanding of what it is and how it connects to social justice.

Across texts, joy – and its absence – are framed as an important addition to our understanding of teaching and learning, both as an antidote to ineffective teaching and an important part of repairing injustice in schools.

The literature on joyful learning and social justice reviewed here falls into three categories: The Joy of Representation, The Joy of Resistance, and The Joy of Engagement.

The Joy of Representation: Literature on teaching that emphasizes inclusion, representation, and celebration of students’ identities, histories, and cultural backgrounds address the role of joy and joyful learning in creating a more socially just schooling systems. In this literature review, I look at three frameworks: Historically Responsive Literacy, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, and Liberatory Public Education (Love, 2019; Landson-Billings, 2013; Jefferson, Gutierrez, & Silverstein, 2018). See the infographic below with the main takeaways about how joyful learning is used within these frameworks to promote social justice.

The Joy of Resistance: In this section of the literature review, joy is discussed as an essential tool for disrupting racism and other oppressions in schools and beyond. The literature on joy and resistance leans heavily on scholarship from Bettina Love (2019) and her book We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Love’s work centers the role of Black Joy, freedom dreaming, and abolitionist teaching. These terms are the foundation of the literature reviewed in this section. 

Black Joy, she writes, is needed for resistance, freedom, healing and joy. It’s crucial to social change and teaching, as quoted in the image below! Black joy is about finding joy in the midst of pain and trauma and is part of the fight to be fully human (Love, 2019, p.11)

Love’s writings are bolstered by scholars in psychology and sociology, including the work of Lynn Segal, who writes about the connection between political engagement and happiness, and Hannah Ardent, who wrote that,“Those participating in resistance to or a process of collective deliberations on the harms of the present, sometimes trying to build alternatives, often do find within these strategies sources of fulfillment, resilience, even moments of shared joy” (Segal, 2017, p. xiv).

Segal and Ardent discuss the role of utopianism in their conversation of collective joy and activism, a concept that overlaps with Love’s work around freedom dreaming. Love (2019) writes that freedom dreaming is the core of abolitionist teaching, teaching that tears down old systems of education to build an “education system that works for everyone, especially those who are put at the edges of the classroom and society” (p.89).  Freedom dreams are dreams grounded in a critique of injustice, they are about imagining school systems designed for Black and Brown youth to thrive. Similarly, utopianism is about changing the world by tearing down systems that impede access to joyful living.

The Joy of Play & Experiential Learning: A large portion of the literature on joyful learning focused on the role of play in promoting joyful learning in and outside of schools. Additionally, writing on joyful learning as an outcome of play often referred to research on engagement, flow, and the emotional experience of joyful learning.  As such, this section includes literature on joyful learning as an outcome of play and the emotional experience of joy brought on by play-based learning.  See the infographic below for the big takeaways from this section of the literature review. 

Closing: Research on joy an joyful learning spans topics ranging from Black Joy and its role in abolitionist pedagogy, joy as an emotional outcome of play-based learning, joy as a dimension of engagement and flow, and joy as a precursor to academic achievement.This interdisciplinary literature review, explored texts on the topic of joyful learning and social justice with this question in mind: How does joyful learning contribute to a socially-just education? You’ll find the key takeaways below:

Of the social justice pedagogies reviewed here, abolitionist teaching had the most direct link to the importance of cultivating joy and joyful learning in schools (Love, 2019). Culturally relevant Education, Historically Responsive Literacy, and Liberatory Public Education touched on the role of engagement, interest, and enjoyment, but did not directly address joyful learning (Jefferson, Gutierrez, & Silverstein, 2018; Landson-Billings,1994; Love, 2019). The literature on play and play-based learning emphasized joy as both an outcome of play-based learning and a prerequisite for academic achievement, however, this literature infrequently addressed the social-justice issues connected to play-based learning practices, particularly issues of access resulting from the disproportionate pressure of accountability and standardized testing on schools serving primarily Black and Brown students (Love, 2019). Psychology and sociology added to this inquiry by offering definitions of joy from their disciplinary perspectives, framing joy as more than an educational phenomenon, but also a cognitive, relational, and societal one (Gray, 2013; Haywood, 2005; Karjalainen, Hanhimäki, & Puroila, 2019).

After reviewing the literature on this topic, it is clear that more scholarship is needed on the role of joyful learning as a tool for social justice education.

Many questions remain. This review of literature spurred these question in particular:

  • How might Bettina Love’s work on Black Joy inform older frameworks like culturally relevant pedagogy?
  • How can we address issues of access to joyful learning and play based learning from an abolitionist perspective? What would a school system that centers play and joy for Black and Brown young people look like?
  • Borrowing from Landson-Billings approach of looking at what’s going right, what can we learn from teachers who are effectively cultivating joy as tools for social-justice education?

You can participate in discussion on this topic by joining the comments section on our latest Instagram post! Go see what the CREA community is saying about joy and social justice by clicking here!


Conklin. (2014). Toward More Joyful Learning: Integrating Play Into Frameworks of Middle Grades Teaching.    American Educational Research Journal, 51(6), 1227–1255.

Csikszentmihalyi, & Asakawa, K. (2016). Universal and Cultural Dimensions of Optimal Experiences. Japanese Psychological Research, 58(1), 4–13.

Gloria Ladson-Billings. (1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.

Heywood. (2005). Learning joyfully: An emotional and transformative experience. Melbourne Studies in Education, 46(1), 33–44.

Jefferson, Gutierrez, C., & Silverstein, L. (2018). Liberatory Public Education: A Framework for Centering Community and Democracy in Public Education. The Urban Review, 50(5), 735–756.

Karjalainen, Hanhimäki, E., & Puroila, A.-M. (2019). Dialogues of Joy: Shared Moments of Joy Between Teachers and Children in Early Childhood Education Settings. International Journal of Early Childhood, 51(2), 129–143.

Ladson-Billings. (2013). The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (2. Aufl.). Jossey-Bass.

Love, B. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. New York, NY: Random House.

Lynne, S. (2017). Radical Joy: Moments of Collective Joy. Verso.

Muhammad, G., Love, B. L., & Scholastic Inc.,. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy.

Play as Preparation for Learning and Life: An Interview with Peter Gray. (2013). American Journal of Play, 5(3), 271–.

Shareski. (2017). Instilling Joy in a Digital Age. LEARNing Landscapes, 11(1), 31–.



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