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Second Graders Inspire A Playground for All

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    April Hattori

Today, the playground at Centennial - A School for Expeditionary Learning in Denver is accessible to all children because of second graders who applied their learning through a project on simple machines. 

Teachers Fran Taffer and Ali Bernstein last year led their two classrooms on a real world learning adventure with a purpose. The Simple Machines expedition features case studies in which students learn about force and motion via a deep dive into the mechanics of the wheel. They become experts in their own simple machines (ramps, pulleys, wedges, etc.) and identify an opportunity in which a simple machine can play a role in improving their community.

“When we started it, we had no idea what we were going to do. I heard an NPR story about how students with disabilities did not have access to playgrounds. It got me thinking that we could solve that problem at Centennial,” Fran said. The woodchip surface of Centennial’s playground made it difficult for students in wheelchairs to play on it. Writing letters to Denver Public Schools to ask for a smooth, safe playground surface that students in wheelchairs could access became the goal.

Fran and Ali started by having the students do an experiment about friction and how wheels don’t work on a woodchip surface. They then learned about playgrounds, disabilities, and making change in their community. Experts, including a designer of universally accessible playgrounds, were brought in to share their knowledge with the students. Their visits were coupled with close reading and writing work on the topics.  

 “The writing process became something that all the students could understand and get behind. We focused on enabling students to understand why being able to play is important to develop social skills. The combination of taking enough time to build background knowledge before writing was important. When they started writing, it never felt forced,” Fran said.

Fran wrote the exemplar letter that served as the model for the students and developed the criteria for success. Student-led assessment and learning targets kept the students on track so they understood the purpose of their work. Additional learning opportunities occurred when fourth and fifth graders mentored the second graders and critiqued their work.

The students read and presented the letters to Denver Public Schools officials who warmly received them. The approval process and construction took a year and the new playground was unveiled last month.

Though the students had hoped the playground would be completed last year, they learned a valuable lesson. “I was worried that it might not happen, but now that it happened, I feel - like accomplished - and proud,” said Maya Cordova who is now in third grade. A fellow student Jason Waters added: “What I learned is that I can make a change no matter how old I am.”

See the KUSA-TV news story here.