Loosening Up: Breaking Boundaries for Creative Play in Schoolyards

by Eric Higbee, ASLA, Jason Medeiros, and Leon Smith

Students use graphic organizers to help generate models of playground installations designed to inspire STEAM learning and creative play. / image: Fahad Aldaajani

Education and Creativity at Hawthorne Elementary’s STEAM Playspace

Part 1: Engaging Students and Community

The beneficial value of ‘Loose Parts’ and ‘Nature Play’ for childhood development comes up repeatedly in education literature and discussions on landscape design. Yet, in our opinion, there are few examples of these being built in public school settings because of a variety of prohibitive factors, including the dominance of manufactured playground equipment in children’s landscapes and district-level fear of injury and liability.

Beginning in 2017, the community at Hawthorne Elementary in Seattle bridged this gap with the Hawthorne STEAM Playspace, transforming a portion of their asphalt schoolyard into a community-curated, nature-based, loose parts playground. To our knowledge, this is one of the only contemporary public schools to embrace loose parts as an intentional part of its playground.

Over this and two more posts, we will tell Hawthorne’s story and share what we learned. In this post, we will discuss our student and community engagement process; the second post will focus on navigating bureaucratic resistance; and the third will cover the final design, implementation, and lessons learned.

Let’s dive in!

Project Background

Located in diverse southeast Seattle, Washington, Hawthorne Elementary is a Title 1 “High Poverty School” with a mission embracing Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) education. Hawthorne’s existing playground was typical of many urban schoolyards: roughly an acre of treeless asphalt punctuated by a small grassy area and a few areas of aging playground equipment.

The Friends of Hawthorne PTA aspired to a playground with more diverse play opportunities and a stronger presence of nature. The PTA applied for a City of Seattle Matching Fund Grant, and with those funds selected a multidisciplinary design team (also the authors of this post) to generate and implement an improvement plan.

The selected team included a landscape architect specializing in community-driven place making (Eric Higbee, PLA, ASLA of Convene PLLC); a science teacher and landscape designer (Jason Medeiros of Outdoor Classroom Design) and a free play advocate and playscape designer (Leon Smith of Puddletown Playworks). Support was also provided by Stephanie Ingram at Fivedot and Herrera Environmental.

Students are experts on where they play…but sometimes need help reading a map. Every class played orientation games centered around a chalk-drawn compass rose. / image: Fahad Aldaajani

The design team immediately saw a direct line from STEAM education—emphasizing experimentation and creativity—to the principles of “Adventure Play,” which center on children’s ability to construct, imagine, and reshape play environments. They also understood the potential for nature to create a fertile context for play and learning.

However, the team also had experience with the aforementioned institutional barriers that typically prevent loose parts and nature play in schoolyards. To gather the community voice and necessary momentum to shift the schoolyard paradigm, the team developed three strategies for the design and design process:

  • Redefining the playground as an extension of the school and student learning, and acknowledging that play extends beyond fixed play equipment.
  • Galvanizing the community around a vision meeting its genuine needs, and using nature and creative play as the norm, not the outlier, when designing spaces for children.
  • Navigating fears and unfamiliarity with loose parts play with open dialogue, technical knowledge, and incremental steps.

Redefining the Playground  

What exactly does a STEAM playspace look like?

To find out, we started in the classroom.

Students easily identify areas of need (notice the lack of seating in pink) and often favored places for imaginary games (gold stars over blue). / image: Jason Medeiros

Beginning with participation from a small group of teachers, Jason Medeiros used his experience as a science teacher to develop and engage students in K-5 classrooms with age-appropriate design activities. Once underway, the project gained awareness and momentum, finishing with the involvement of approximately 85% of all Hawthorne students.

Classroom activities took shape in three ways:

  • Connecting with home: All of our interactions with students began with inviting them to write poetry about a favorite place to play at home. This immediately stretched the idea of play to include theatrical games, imaginary spaces, safe spaces (bedrooms!), and social groups. Our K-1 students transformed their poems into vivid watercolor paintings for display at community meetings.
  • Students as experts: After completing games and scavenger hunts to teach map orientation, students performed detailed playground site surveys. Besides favorite spots and problem areas, we specifically asked students to identify potential places for creativity, nature, social/sharing spaces (seating), and imaginary games.
  • Celebrating STEAM: We challenged second, third, and fourth graders to design playable interventions that would also teach others about their favorite STEAM subject. Student designs began with a graphic organizer using lists of actions to describe what people would do and how they would learn on their STEAM play element. Students turned their ideas into expressive 3D models displayed on tables during community meetings.
Poems and watercolors captured students’ favorite places to play, which pushed the conversation to include creative, social, and cozy spaces (like this child’s bedroom) on the school playground. / image: Jason Medeiros

All of these activities planted seeds for families to ponder together. What if we learned science on the playground? What makes the best place for creative games? How would a playground feel if it was designed for sharing, cooperating, or experimenting?

The student engagement created a palpable ‘buzz’ that had the school and families excited weeks before the first community meeting.

Galvanizing the Community

Engaging with the larger community is an essential part of a successful schoolyard design. As current and future users of the space, putting a community’s knowledge and dreams at the center of the design helps ensure the project directly meets community needs and desires. Family and student involvement also cultivates a sense of ownership, which is critical to long-term maintenance and success.

We also knew we would need every ounce of neighborhood support to power through potential challenges and doubts from the Seattle Public School District.

The major thrust of community engagement for the Improvement Plan took place over the course of three community meetings.

Students’ work fills the cafeteria tables as students, parents, and neighbors participate in one of three public community meetings. / image: Fahad Aldaajani

Student work was the foundation and magnet for all community meetings. Each meeting had a new set of student projects prominently on display, making families curious and motivated to attend. During the meetings, our official site analysis was generated by the students, who readily identified the paucity of nature, lack of seating, the painfulness of the asphalt, and dominance of ‘ball sports.’ Our presentation of “What is Possible” centered on student themes expressed by the models and paintings on display.

Attendance was impressive. Between 100 and 150 adults and children attended each meeting. Many students proudly took families on tours, sharing favorite projects and often sitting at tables with their own work on display. As attached as they were to their own hard work, students worked equally hard to invite changes and prompt siblings and neighbors for new ideas.

In the end, a STEAM-centered playspace was easy to find in the values of the Hawthorne community. Indeed it was demanded!  Without ignoring beloved climbing areas and ball sports, there was a loud mandate for play to include social and creative spaces, be based in nature, and support classroom skills and values.

But capturing the voice of a community and making their ideas safe, affordable, and maintainable in the eyes of the school district were two different things. A cutting edge ‘never been done before’ design incorporating loose parts and nature play tossed at the feet of the District, had ‘high risk of failure’ written all over it.

The nitty gritty of how we navigated this tension will be the focus of our next post: Making the Case. We hope you enjoyed our engagement strategies. Please reach out with comments and questions!

The next post in this three-part series will be published on The Field next week, so stay tuned for more on Hawthorne Elementary’s STEAM Playspace! And, the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN leaders who reviewed this post would love to hear from other landscape architects about their experiences with playground equipment manufacturers, and showcase more examples of innovative structures that respond to children’s developmental needs in future Field posts.

Eric Higbee, PLA, ASLA, of Convene PLLC is a landscape architect specializing in community-driven place making.

Jason Medeiros of Outdoor Classroom Design is a science teacher and landscape designer.

Leon Smith of Puddletown Playworks is a free play advocate and playscape designer.

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