Arizona School Uses Playground Project as Tool for Learning

By Catalina Foothills Unified School District, Arizona

What happens when fifth graders are asked to design a kindergarten playground?

The inspiration for a collaborative fifth grade project struck Nina Hernandez as she watched kindergarteners at play. Ms. Hernandez, the fifth grade-writing teacher at Manzanita Elementary School, in Catalina Foothills School District near Tucson, Ariz., noticed that some students played on the play structures, but others did not. 'How can we engage all kindergarteners in play?' she wondered.

"I want to make a playground!" she announced to her colleague, science teacher Jennifer DeBenedetti. Together they pondered, are kids who aren't at play missing out on learning opportunities?

Ms. DeBenedetti was intrigued. "The playground is a powerful learning tool. When you connect learning with something that has a physical aspect, you've got a dual process going on that helps the brain engage and make connections."

"What if we asked our fifth graders to design a kindergarten playground? What would they create?" Ms. Hernandez asked.

The fifth graders were stunned when they heard about the four-week project, which connected applied learning, an authentic environment and 21st century skills. "It was shocking when our teachers asked us make a playground," said student Andrew Dinh. "I didn't know that kids were allowed to build stuff at school."

Project Create and Build

The project, named Project Create and Build, fit perfectly with the fifth grade science curriculum. "During one of the lessons, we were studying the physical changes that happen to the brain as it learns new things," said Ms. DeBenedetti. The class translated that lesson into a discussion of how the environment impacts learning. In one study by Dr. Marian Diamond at University of California, Berkley, scientists studied how the environment affects brain development. In this study, some rats were engaged with other rats and toys. We measured the number and length of the dendrites, a specific part of neurons. The rats in enriched environments had more and longer dendrites, while the rats in impoverished environments had fewer and shorter reaching dendrites. The students used diagrams based on scans of the cells to make their measurements.

Following that lesson, the fifth graders took a 'field trip' to the school's kindergarten playground to evaluate the empty space. They thought about a range of practical topics from shade and safety issues to cost and durability. Because the project was planned spontaneously, there was no budget. Every item would have to be donated and utilize age-appropriate DIY materials.

The next step was securing permission for the project. Students wrote persuasive letters to principal Kim Boling, asking to move ahead with their project. "We told her that our number one responsibility was keeping the playground safe," said student Jessica Milliken. "But our goal was to give kindergarteners more ways to learn while they were outside."

"Go for It" Support
"The reasons you provided were thorough and convincing, and I am happy to say that I approve your project!" Principal Boling wrote in a reply letter. Once they had the endorsement of the school, Ms. Hernandez taught mini-lessons on communication and collaboration, preparing students to work effectively in teams on the project. For example, to hone communication skills, each student team built a well-known landmark out of LEGO bricks. Each team had differing constraints on communication: some could use only gestures while other teams could talk freely.

How did their ability to communicate affect the building of the structure? Surprisingly, non-verbal communication led to building better structures. The teachers tied their results to the project challenges that lay ahead.

"Some of the groups who talked freely didn't finish the assignment," observed Ms. Hernandez. She went on to explain that teams who couldn't talk chose non-verbal communication strategies carefully. Their brains focused on the task of building rather than hashing out ideas. They transferred their learning from this lesson to evaluate how well they listened and responded to their teammates throughout the project. The result: students worked more efficiently on Project Create and Build, laying the plans for six stations in just a few days.

During the design process, students asked many 'what if' questions, seeking to create activities that allowed flexibility of play. First, they recalled their younger days when they used the kindergarten play structures. Then they explored more innovative ways to play outside. They all agreed that it would be important to have activities that went beyond swinging and climbing.

"The way you play impacts different aspects of your cognitive development," said Ms. DeBenedetti. "We already had a playground that engaged students in gross motor skills, so we thought about how to build fine motor skills and socio-emotional development."

The students reflected back on what they needed to know in kindergarten, considering citizenship, creativity, flexibility, and collaboration along with academic concepts. The goal was to create something for every learner. One student, Luke Gooding, suggested, "They're going to be learning about sound and volume—let's make a music station! We can hang pots and pans from a wall." Project Sound Wall was born.

"Kids love to play in the dirt. Let's make something fun and messy. How about a mud kitchen?" suggested student Andrew Dinh. Planning the kitchen led to more discussion. "We talked about things like, 'When you are making dinner at your house, what does it look like?' 'Does everyone in the family help get dinner on the table?'" mused Ms. Hernandez. Project Mud Kitchen became a place to learn about collaboration.

The class thought about centers that would complement a kitchen. "How do you sustain a kitchen?" asked Ms. Hernandez. "Well, you need to buy groceries. Kindergarteners can't go buy things, but what about a garden?"

Project Rock Garden was a deceptively simple activity: rows of colorfully painted rocks that represented different fruits and vegetables. While they were working on the rocks, students came up with the idea to put numbers on the back. "They wanted to teach math concepts through an economic game," said Ms. DeBenedetti. "For example, if strawberries each cost 5, how much do 3 strawberries cost? The kids really drove the project, thinking of things that we wouldn't have considered. They were really the experts on play."

Where would students put the rocks when they were done playing with them? A student suggested that they build a center made up of stacking bins. “Project Stow Away” became a staircase with buckets to help kids learn organizational skills. "You assume that kids know how to put things away after they play, but that is actually a learned behavior," said Ms. Hernandez. "Putting things away is part of the practice of play." 

Another activity center, “Project Cars and Ramps,” helped students work on fine motor skills. "In kindergarten, we had cars that we would play with in the classroom," remembered Andrew. "What if we built a track outside? It could help teach them how to follow rules." It included signs like stop, yield, and go.

“Project Caterpillar” was inspired by a favorite children's book, The Hungry Caterpillar. Students wanted a kinesthetic activity with a literacy concept hidden inside. Each 'step' of the caterpillar was a letter. Said one student, "They could learn their ABC's by stepping on them."

Once the six final projects were installed in the playground, the fifth graders noticed how kindergarteners blurred the lines between each activity. "If kids are playing with cars and ramps, but there's too much dirt over the rubber track, they would intuitively look for a smoother surface. So off they would go to play cars on the flat surface of the caterpillar," said Ms. DeBenedetti. "This demonstrates problem solving skills."

Once the six final projects were installed in the playground, the fifth graders noticed how kindergarteners blurred the lines between each activity. "If kids are playing with cars and ramps, but there's too much dirt over the rubber track, they would intuitively look for a smoother surface. So off they would go to play cars on the flat surface of the caterpillar," said Ms. DeBenedetti. "This demonstrates problem solving skills."

What did the fifth graders learn from Project Create and Build? "I saw how kindergarteners learn new skills in a fun way," said one of the students who worked on the project.

"Kindergarteners have wild imaginations!" said another playground designer.

Even though Project Create and Build is finished, the fifth-graders haven't stopped thinking about how to improve the activity stations for the future. They are busy compiling their suggestions so next year's class can build upon their work. For Manzanita's fifth graders, the playground project became a powerful tool to 'learn about learning' and reinforce important skills like communication, collaboration, and creativity; for the kindergarteners, the power of play took on a whole new meaning through a special playground built just for them.

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning named Manzanita Elementary as a P21 Exemplary School of Innovation. It also was honored as a 2012 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Photos courtesy of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.
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