Can you think of a classroom activity that is firmly rooted in the real world, extremely relevant to the kids, and off-the-charts engaging as a result?
This story, reported by NPR, is a fantastic example. A national non-profit, Trust for the Public Land, is working to make parks and outdoor spaces accessible to everyone. For an elementary school in Philadelphia, that involved a renovation process of an existing schoolyard that was led by the school’s third graders (with adult supervision and guidance).
If you’re wondering how complex this could have been, the answer is, “very.” The kids acted much like park designers do in real life. They surveyed teachers, families, and park neighbors about what they wanted from the space and even studied how the current school yard was being used. They chose the playground equipment that best fit everyone’s desires and needs for the park and created a draft design which was submitted for feedback. They used the feedback to make adjustments to their design and submitted their final project.*
The park isn’t just a kids’ fantasy land, either. It includes two rain gardens to address specific problems with flooding and storm water pollution that had plagued the old schoolyard. So not only is the the park greener and more functional, it’s also safer and cleaner.
The park renovation took 5 years (thanks to the pandemic). the 3rd graders who spearheaded the project graduated from the school last spring (2023) in the middle of the renovation. How did they feel about it? One young man said, “I felt like I was an adult [in] third grade. I felt like I was really in charge, and I was happy building and designing it.”
Trust for Public Land has documented multiple benefits for these green spaces, citing both better attendance and fewer suspensions. They’ve even seen academic performance go up after a school yard renovation. Researchers at the University of Arizona are currently studying the health and academic effects of schoolyard renovations across 200 schools. The project runs through 2024 and I am interested to see what conclusions they draw.
You may be thinking, “We can’t renovate the schoolyard every other year so kids can have relevance and agency and such. Impractical!” And this is true. BUT…there’s so much more that could be made relevant, real-world, and engaging for kids in the activities we ask of them in the classroom. Here are a few thoughts:
Social Studies map standards: use maps of the actual spaces in and around the school. I saw an excellent Kindergarten activity recently where kids had a giant map of their playground with movable features like the sandbox, the swingset, and so on. The map was of the hardscape — walkways and green spaces — and their task was to look at photos of the playground and put the moveable things in the rough location they should be.
- Social Studies and ELA: identify community problems that need solving and come up with possible solutions. Write letters to the principal or the superintendent recommending action. Take action that is within your power to fix what you can.
- Science: observe real things and real phenomena and take notes. This isn’t always possible, but it’s a lot more possible than what usually occurs in classrooms. Use observations to draw conclusions or recommend actions. Instead of an article on soil types and what they’re good for, give kids samples of different types of soil and have them observe what happens when they pour water through them. Draw conclusions about what types might be best for plants.
- ELA: turn Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth into an episode of CSI, as detailed in this excellent article by Edutopia.
Obviously we can’t undertake massive renovations every year and allow them to be driven by kids BUT we can — and should — be doing more to offer experiences that are real-world, engaging and relevant and that offer kids as much agency as possible.
*Another Philadelphia school broke ground on their new schoolyard this summer with a design spearheaded by their 3rd graders. They did research on watersheds (watersheds!) and visited other renovated playgrounds to help them formulate their design.