How to Explain a Joke to a Child


Children’s humor is often garbled, ranging from potty words to nonsensical sentences followed by loud giggles. So when you try to tell a child a joke, it’s not surprising that many just don’t get it. What should one know, then, about how to explain a joke to a child?

The way to explain a joke to a child is actually much more complex than the joke itself. How to explain a joke to a child involves them understanding what a joke is; why jokes are meant to be funny; and common humor devices associated with joke telling, in child-friendly language.

As a public school teacher for almost two decades as well as a mom of four and now grandma (“Oma”), I have a lot of experience with children. From this, I’ve learned the importance of using humor for both education and entertainment, in the right way. In this article, I’ll focus on the proper way to explain jokes to kids and what’s entailed. It’s much more complicated than “Knock Knock”!

How to Explain the word Joke to a Child

Even established comedians can have difficulty cracking jokes for kids and making them laugh. It’s a specialization creating kid jokes that actually work.

Have you ever told a joke to a child and rather than be rewarded with a smile and laughter, instead get back a blank stare. It’s not so difficult to make kids laugh at jokes, but first, they have to know what the word joke actually means. Once this is understood the battle for laughs is not so hard. So then, how do you explain the word joke to a child?

How to explain the word joke to a child requires that a prerequisite level of cognitive understanding and language usage from the child has been met. Providing the meaning in words the child knows and using engaging joke examples ensures children understand what the word joke really means.

Most adults can explain the meaning of the word joke when asked. But, using a common dictionary meaning is helpful for avoiding unnecessary words from overcomplicating it. And when children are the intended audience, avoiding overcomplication is quite smart!

joke: (1a) something said or done to provoke laughter;

especially a brief oral narrative with a climactic humorous twist

Source: Merriam-Webster

And don’t forget one of the most useful ways to making sure children understand a concept is to ask them to explain or tell it back to you. And of course, give them opportunity to ask questions!

How to Explain to a Child What Makes a Joke Funny

One issue with jokes for kids is that they need understanding of what makes the joke funny. Granted, we are not all comedians, but there are some common features of funny jokes and not understanding that is why often a funny joke falls flat. So, what’s important to know about how to explain to a child what makes a joke funny?

A great method for how to explain to a child what makes a joke funny is visualization. When the child creates a mental picture of the joke, he or she is often able to see what makes the joke funny. This technique also ensures the child has the cognitive capability to understand the joke, too.

One way to practice jokes with your child is through daily reading and sharing of jokes. We have a child-friendly resource for this available on Amazon: Fun Jokes For Kids Coloring Book – Each page has an easy-to-read riddle or joke, as well as a simple to color page made just right for small hands.

As your child colors the joke page, you can have him or her explain what makes the joke funny. Then next ask your child to visualize the joke in his or her head and compare it to the coloring page. It’s a fun activity that builds language and a sense of humor in your child.

How to Explain Surprise to a Child

One of the first things kids learn as infants is the game peek-a-boo. Part of the appeal is the anticipation of ‘boo’, which is a form of surprise. However, there is also an element of surprise with jokes. How best can this joke feature be explained to children?

Knowing how to explain surprise to a child is part of teaching the concept of joke. Using familiar games like peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek, as well as funny twists in common kids’ stories are helpful for explaining surprise to children.

Remember, surprise is the unexpected feature of a joke, typically at the end, that provides the comical element. Once kids understand the purpose of surprise, as well as how to anticipate it, they’ll better understand jokes altogether.

How to Teach Polysemy to a Child

The study of polysemy can truly belong in an advanced course of linguistics, just ask Dr. Martin Hilbert of Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland; however, when talking with children, using polysemous words as examples is an simple way to explain the concept.

Word relationships are known as semantics, but you probably grew up learning categories such as antonyms and synonyms. However, multiple meaning words are what’s known as polysemous words. Although teaching children to explain polysemy in detail is not necessary, teaching the concept is for building vocabulary as well as teaching jokes.

Though research shows children have a bias towards less polysemous words in vocabulary learning, this is natural to avoid ambiguity. Explicit and strategic practices that involve reducing anxiety for the unfamiliar, then, is part of knowing how to teach polysemy to a child successfully.

One of the least anxious ways to teach children is through play and fun, and humor goes along with that. I always found teaching multiple meaning words quite enjoyable because I was able to embed that through playful stories, silly sentences, rhymes, and other less serious lessons.

When telling jokes that use polysemous words, you will want to make sure your child has the punchline vocabulary in his or her personal dictionary. However, it’s also useful to use jokes for actually teaching multiple meaning words. This, I found as a teacher, was more appealing than simply having students write out definitions for vocabulary learning.

For related articles on children and humor, I recommend these:

How to Explain Irony to a Child

Spongebob Squarepants is a popular animated series for kids, but it also is useful for teachers to use for explaining irony and humor.

Irony is one of the most often used figurative language devices, especially in modern literature and movies. Heck, it’s even highlighted in the 2021 Spongebob Movie: Sponge On The Run trailer! Despite this, it’s a difficult to explain irony to a child. Isn’t that ironic?

Knowing how to explain irony to a child is part of teaching the concept of jokes. The best way to teach children irony is through the use of language that not only shows things happening opposite than what is expected, but also uses words and situations especially appealing to children.

You can start with pop culture examples such as the familiar Chick-Fil-A ad featuring a cow holding a sign saying ‘eat more chicken’ and cartoon characters like Garfield the cat who bosses Odie the dog and elicit from children not only why these situations are funny, but also what makes them ironic.

As a teacher, the next step for me to evaluate whether my students grasped the concept of irony and using it in jokes would be to have them create original examples. Sometimes this can be too challenging for children depending on their individual academic and comfort levels, so letting them work in partners or providing them more examples are ways to scaffold the practice.

For home, I recommend searching ironic jokes for kids online to share together; it can even be a fun activity included in your regular family game night.

How to Explain the word Appropriate to a Child

One danger of teaching jokes to children is not teaching context along with it. According to The English Journal, children need to be explicitly taught when to use jokes, and teachers (or those adults utilizing jokes with children) likewise should incorporate jokes (humor) purposefully.

Knowing how to explain the word appropriate to a child is vital for many reasons, but it’s also part of explaining jokes. The best way for adults to explain appropriate is with clear, verbal explanation; relevant, engaging examples; and providing ample opportunity for kids to ask questions.

Before any practice, adults should provide a clear, concise definition for appropriate. As a teacher, I often go straight to the book…the dictionary that is, either hardbound or online. If your child is old enough, you can have him or her do the searching for the term.

Then, explicitly connect the definition with how it relates to the concept of jokes. Afterwards, children need to see (read or hear) concrete examples of appropriate jokes and when to tell or use jokes in situations appropriately. You can even make this into a game format…’is it appropriate to…’ and so on.

Throughout the process, it’s important that kids are free to ask questions and clarify. I’ve found over the years with kids that they like to pose hypotheticals, too. This is okay for this teaching exercise, but it’s also important to make it clear that the ‘list’ isn’t exhaustive and just because it’s not on the list doesn’t mean it’s okay. Don’t fall for that trap!

How to Explain a Joke Without Ruining It

For professional comedians, explaining a joke after it falls flat should absolutely be avoided. In those cases, it’s better to just move on. However, for children (and yes, I admit, for me) sometimes you need to provide help for them to get the punchline. How can you explain the joke without ruining it, so that it’s still funny?

Knowing how to explain the joke without ruining it means telling the least amount required for the listener to understand the joke without giving away the punchline. This means telling just a bit at a time and gaging the reaction of the listener before adding anymore.

If you take this step-by-step approach, often the listener is able to get just enough hints to understand the joke without it being ruined, and to avoid embarrassment of the joke going over his or her head.

Take it to the Next Level…Teach Children Easy Jokes

Now that you know you can explain a joke to a child through the use of jokes, what’s the best way to get started?

Teach children easy jokes with simplified language and quick punchlines as part of how to explain a joke to a child. The best jokes to start with are Knock Knock jokes, jokes with rhymes, and jokes that use high-interest topics.

High-interest topics for most kids involve sports, toys, daily routines like bedtime, and popular cartoon characters like Spongebob Squarepants, Scooby Doo, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Our jokes about characters from Monsters, Inc. and Frozen are two examples of high-interest kids topics.

Another popular type of jokes for practicing with kids are Knock Knock jokes. The pattern quickly grabs kids’ attention and they are easily able to mimic it. However, the nuances of good Knock Knock jokes are more challenging to learn. It’s important to tailor the ‘funny’ of a Knock Knock joke to children’s individual cognitive level and language ability.

Here are links to our most popular kids jokes pages:

The Punchline: How to Explain a Joke to a Child

To recap, let’s briefly look back at what was shared. You learned…

  1. Explaining jokes is much more complicated than simply telling them.
  2. Children need to first know what a joke is, so be sure to define it clearly, in child-friendly words.
  3. Children need to know what makes jokes funny, so explaining literary devices such as irony and language concepts like polysemy is important.
  4. Teaching appropriateness is vital for jokes to be used properly. Appropriate is just as much about kinds of jokes as when to tell them, too.

I hope this article proved helpful for explaining jokes to kids, and if so, please check out the recommended lists for further study!

Jackie Booe

A mother to four kids, grandmother ("Oma") to a growing number, a retired teacher for over 18 years, and a wife to Mat since 1994, Jackie knows kids and laughter. She holds a license to teach in 3 states and is certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners, with practical experience at all levels. She holds three degrees in the field of education and has taught education courses online at the university level as an adjunct professor, too. She has mentored numerous education interns, hosted professional development for educators, and tutored, in addition to homeschooling her own children.

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