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Lessons from the Playground

What a classroom teacher can learn from thinking like a playground designer

April 15, 2016
Girl on slide

Could a typical playground be any more different from a typical classroom?

A playground invites action and movement and presents self-evident problems and challenges. A classroom is often sterile, standard, and uninspired. Playgrounds encourage children to explore, challenge themselves, and actively engage with the physical structure, often without any written rules or verbal instructions; they can be both intuitive and complex. Classrooms, on the other hand, can seem overly familiar, to the point of boredom. Playgrounds can be used in literal ways, but they are also flexible enough to inspire creative uses. Classrooms frequently host only required duties, without much room for self-direction.

Despite these obvious differences, the fact remains: they are both learning environments. And teachers can use the lessons of playground design to become better designers of their own classrooms.

Lessons from the Playground: One

Consider the potential hazards (emotional, social, academic) and design safety features accordingly. 

Safety occupies a central role in a playground designer’s thinking. Designers anticipate how children will interact with the playground in order to determine where to install guardrails or extra layers of rubberized cushioning. They think about what kind of cushioning will be protective and environmentally friendly, and they think about height restrictions and age appropriateness.

The issue of safety in the classroom is rarely considered at such a foundational level. Skinned knees and broken bones heal, but emotional scars and negative feelings toward school sometimes never do. What “safety” measures can we put into place to shield students from profoundly negative experiences that may have lasting consequences? What is the classroom equivalent to a safe landing surface?

Lessons from the Playground: Two

There is such a thing as too safe. If you over-protect or over-standardize, you risk losing all the fun. 

If playgrounds are overly protective, children are more likely to find them boring. 

A classroom that is overly sterile threatens the same outcome for students. Problems that work out nicely and are similar to ones students have already seen tend to remove the natural thrill students get from solving something new. Activities and tasks that are overly scaffolded are akin to playgrounds that don’t let children explore new heights and experience the sense of accomplishment that comes with venturing into unknown territory. It’s possible that environments can be too safe to be fun. 

Playgrounds are designed to offer custom experiences. They encourage children to create, explore, develop and resolve their own challenges, and celebrate their own accomplishments. How can our classrooms do the same?

Lessons from the Playground: Three

Design the classroom to promote responsible risk-taking. A skinned knee isn’t so bad, especially if the participant recognizes that a little bit of discomfort is an inevitable part of learning.  

HopscotchJust like playground designers, most educators want their students to take risks. But do we incentivize risk-taking? Consider how grading systems, the amount of time students are given to complete tasks, and the way in which incorrect answers are treated can affect students’ willingness to take risks.

Teachers often find it difficult to let their students struggle to solve problems on their own. Many of us enter the field because we want to help students, not intentionally make them struggle. But however much we are tempted to help students avoid the occasional skinned knee — or whatever the classroom equivalent might be — we need to recognize what students gain from struggling, failing, and learning something new about themselves.

Playgrounds are designed to promote and encourage risk-taking because playground designers understand and appreciate the benefits of such opportunities. To what extent do teachers believe the same?

Lessons from the Playground: Four

Let form follow function. Think about what you want your students to learn, and then design a classroom environment that will help them learn it. 

The design of a playground affects how a child uses it. On different playgrounds, children experience different levels of safety, take different kinds of risks, and find different opportunities to explore. Playground design matters.

If it’s obvious that the impact of a playground is inextricably tied to its design, why is it not equally obvious that classroom design matters? Why are so many classrooms using designs that are decades outdated? Nearly a hundred years ago, John Dewey argued for the importance of creating thoughtful learning environments. “We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment. Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose, makes a great difference.”

As educators, we have to ask ourselves: Are we permitting chance environments to do the work, or are we actually designing environments for a specific purpose? 

About the Author

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Zachary Herrmann
Zachary Herrmann is a program director and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. A former math teacher, he received his doctor of education leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2017. Follow him on Twitter at @zachherrmann.
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K-12 Social-Emotional Wellbeing