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Engaging Children Through Playful Learning: A Case Study


engaged learningCommon sense tells us, when we do what we love, we do it well.  When work is fun, we are more creative, we are more thoughtful, and we want to keep building upon that success. Best practices in curriculum design start with that same wisdom. Students who are engaged in meaningful, creative learning projects that connect to the real world are more motivated to succeed. These students are invested in an excellent outcome. Doing something that matters compels kids to expect more of themselves and perform at a higher level than if the greatest motivation was merely a good grade or a gold star. 

So how do we go about designing project-based curriculum that allows for deep and effective learning?

After many years of successfully designing such curriculum, we believe that an effective project-based curriculum needs to be:

  1. Authentic
  2. Experiential
  3. and Reflective

We’ll show an example of a curriculum we teach that embodies those ideas.  Our community theme curriculum engages children in playful learning that encourages children to work harder because it is real.  This journey of learning offers a deeply felt sense of accomplishment and joy in discovery of one's world and one's very self.  To play with the possibilities of leadership, design, and academic excellence in the context of creating something that matters, is authentic. It makes a difference.  What is play for, if not to prepare us for the real world.  Children thrive on authenticity. It is part of their growing up to take on real challenges. So we design project-based curriculum that is authentic.

engaged learningThe curriculum we design is definitely more engaging if it is experiential. We really do learn by doing and there is good reason that job applicants need experience. It is only through experience that we learn what is otherwise hidden.  Imagine reading about how to drive a car. Only through experience will you really know how gently to turn the wheel or how firmly to press on the brakes. Experience brings confidence and competence.  An effective project-based curriculum brings academic understanding to a higher level of application and creativity through actual experience.

We also know that reflection on experience is essential to learning. So when designing effective project-based learning, we must often evoke reflection. With reflection students hone a habit of mind that allows for predictions, strategy, improvement and innovation. Reflection allows one to contemplate past experiences to understand what happened and to imagine what’s next. A reflective curriculum teaches children to be thoughtfully adaptive in a changing world.   When we design curriculum that compels children to reflect and adapt, we playfully equip them to thrive in a changing world.

We chose a theme of community for several reasons.First, it is an area of study in social studies that is literally close to home so there are inherent possibilities of authentic learning. Second, we imagined our students would really understand their community better if we actually went outside the classroom to experience it. And third, we knew children love to imagine themselves in small worlds, so we knew there would be plenty of reflection in the form of dreaming, imagining, presenting, collaborating and deciding on how they should build a model community.

Curriculum Overview
engaged learningOur third grade community study involves a variety of learning expeditions to St. Louis area historical sites to build background knowledge about why communities are established in certain locations, how communities of the past are similar to and different from our community today, and to allow for some imaginative time travel through storytelling and writing. Through authentic interviews during visits to different neighborhoods, students ask what makes a community succeed and what needs to be improved, and they learn that all communities share common attributes--they develop a sense that all things are connected. An ongoing individual research project allows each child to become an “expert” on an aspect of community. Finally, students have the opportunity to synthesize their learning as they create a model community. Over several months, they earn “money,” have designs approved, select materials, and ultimately create their own “River City,” which is a physical manifestation of the many lessons they learned about community. 


Playful Learning that is Authentic
Every community has its “self starters”—those people who have a goal in mind and begin to take steps to meet that goal.  In our classroom community those individuals are often the ones that ask if they can work during recess to clean The River and earn River City money. Through a simulated economy, the River City money accumulates in their class bank accounts, earns interest, is taxed, and enables students to purchase materials for their houses in the model community.

River City Market Days are another way to earn “money.” Students choose a business and complete a business permit that shows they will earn the cost of their supplies through additional chores at home. On the day of the market they learn first-hand about supply and demand, the importance of a good location, pricing, promotion, product choice, and paying taxes. Customers, usually parents and school staff, trade one U.S. dollar for one River City dollar. Our class reinvests that money in small loans to independent business people around the world through Kiva’s microfinance program.

engaged learningPlayful Learning that is Experiential
After field studies in different neighborhood communities and many classroom discussions, students identify what they would like to contribute to our model community. Their ideas range from a hospital to a park and from a bakery to a bridge.  With research topic in hand, students gather information from interviews and site visits as well as books and the Internet. The end result will be both a research paper and an oral presentation at a “Town Hall meeting.” Each student shares three main reasons why her idea would be good for the model community, some background information on the topic as well as a description of her vision for this idea.  The class provides feedback, asks clarifying questions, and then votes on each proposal.

After these Town Hall meetings, each student has a clear understanding of all the students’ projects and ideas about how one project might connect with another in the model community. This knowledge comes in handy during the two days our model community is up and running as our students become expert tour guides of River City for their parents and other students at the school. 

Playful Learning that is Reflective
After a flurry of activity to set up the model community, students now take five minutes of quiet to survey the town before them. They note which businesses are on the shore of our “lake”--Angelo’s Bait & Tackle, Ella’s Waterfront Marina, and Chloe’s Big Minnow Bookshop. They see which houses are near different businesses, and they realize that Dylan’s Outdoor Adventure Park has an in-town skate park as well as a rock climbing, zipline area outside of town.  Then the students sit down with their journals.  With the aid of their background knowledge and strong imaginations, the town becomes real as they write about a day in the life of River City.

“So I hopped in my car to go to work (at River City All Natural Animal Hospital), if I didn’t I would be late. So I did the daily meeting, performed surgery, and also went to Ella’s Waterfront Marina. I met Ella inside because it was raining so hard down. I thought what a gloomy day for a birthday, but he’ll be bright and sunny when he sees this!  So I purchased the best boat they had!”  (Alyssa)

“ . . . I have to go to Drake Home Improvement Store to patch the roof of our home because of a storm.  I think I’ll do my favorite hobby, fishing. What a whopper!  A giant crappie. . . I’m now going to RRCRC (Rockin’ River City Recreation Center) for some exercise.  Next I go to Jilly’s Museum but there’s a robbery.  The Mona Lisa is stolen.  Never fear Abby is here!  She already has the robber in handcuffs.  She also got the painting back. . . .”   (Angelo)

Before dismantling our model community, students reflect on the future of River City. They identify what might be missing from our town and how it could become even better.

engaged learning“River City is a very sustainable place, but I would like to make it even more sustained, not just businesses and houses but suars (sic), water collectors and maybe one or two big wind turbines for River City. If you just say ‘Oh Alexis or Ivy will take care of that,’ it won’t happen. You have to make a difference too.  If you do that River City will become better and better.”  (Megumi)

When our students do what they love, they tend to do it well. That is where we suggest any teacher begins to design his own curriculum that engages children through playful learning. Our third grade students at The College School had a most amazing year of learning as they followed a path of learning that was:

  1. Authentic
  2. Experiential
  3. and Reflective.

Getting your children started on a path of engaged and playful learning takes effort, planning, and maybe even a knack for seeing the potential learning that can come from your own “backyard.” Once initiated, it is remarkable to see how fast the students run with opportunities to explore on their own. We have seen this in our own students who respond with such an ethic of excellence to playful learning. We also see similarly positive results in the classrooms throughout The College School and in schools around the nation where there is curriculum that is authentic, experiential and reflective.

engaged learningWe Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
Our approach to authentic, experiential, and reflective project-based curriculum design that allows for playful learning is informed and inspired by others. Here are just a few of our favorites:

Sobel, David, Childhood and Nature:  Design Principles for Educators, Stenhouse Publishers, 2008.
This book is a collection of teachers’ success stories of children learning in nature.  Sobel responds to each case study with research and perspective to underscore exactly why experiences playing in nature are essential to childhood development.  Sobel is a must read if you are looking for real stories that show how real teachers bring playful learning to their classrooms.

Berger, Ron, An Ethic of Excellence:  Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, Heinemann, 2003.
An Ethic of Excellence was another book that our faculty, administration, and board all read, twice.  It’s an easy read from an authentic, master teacher, who also happens to have been a carpenter. We love to borrow one of his favorite common sense carpenter quotes, “Measure twice, cut once.” to encourage children to think first, then act.

McCarthy, Bernice, (2000). About Teaching: 4MAT in the Classroom. Wauconda, IL: About Learning, Inc.
This book is a how-to guide on Constructivist curriculum design. It provides vocabulary that teachers and parents can share and understand almost intuitively.  We like the accessibility and common sense approach to this book.  It speaks to a natural learning cycle, a tinkering with ideas, and a need for kids to emotionally engage in their learning by putting their new skills to the test of application and innovation.

Pink, Daniel. (2005). A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. New York: River Head Books
This book speaks of Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning as powerful elements of success in the 21st century. Our faculty, administration and board all read this book and consider its insights in our shared leadership and our curriculum design to embrace the potential of a whole new age.

Penny Allen began teaching at The College School, an independent pre-K through 8th grade school with an emphasis on integrated, experiential education, first in Early Childhood in 2003 and then in Third Grade. She is also the director for The College School's Summer Adventure Camp.  Penny developed and taught storytelling, creative dramatics and writing programs for students in kindergarten through fifth grade in public school and non-profit settings as well as a middle school social studies class - Culture Clash.  Penny holds an MA in Community Arts Management and is a graduate of the Community Arts Training Institute in St. Louis.

Matt holds a BA in Elementary Education and is a MEd candidate at Antioch University, New England. He has taught third grade at The College School since 1994 and previously taught in urban, suburban and rural settings as well as in Japan. Matt incorporates his interests in foreign culture and sustainability into curriculum design that is experiential, integrated, and, often, place-based. He has also mentored or sponsored student initiatives and feasibility studies that have resulted in the installation of solar panels, a wind turbine, and a man-made river onto the school playground.

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