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Play Space, Learning Space

May, 2018
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0j7a0042Children are powerful learners; their interactions are rich and purposeful. This thought, along with the school’s philosophy and pedagogy, is now embodied in the new outdoor space at Shanghai American School, Puxi Campus. It is more than a play space: it is a Learning Space. 

In the new Learning Space children are using their imaginations, weaving fanciful stories to write about later as they hide in the “beehive”; practicing social skills, advocating for themselves and using relationship tools like negotiating and taking turns; and learning scientific skills, such as observing the new leaves on the trees with the changing seasons.

The change from the old yard to the new Learning Space is profound. The space is now a natural playscape with a distinct lack of primary-colored plastic. Whoever thought that children wanted to play in neon yellow with a bright purple slide? The research is myriad –everyone feels better when connected to nature. This research helped influence the choice of materials and equipment, so that they seem to grow right out of the ground. Many children in Shanghai are concrete apartment dwellers and the yard is an amazing gift to children during the day. Family members can also enjoy the Learning Space, sitting on the many benches that line the walkways. It is meant to foster a sense of community.

0j7a0060The Learning Space boasts real wood climbing structures, and earth tone pathways that are in sync with the undulating ground. A patchwork of real and synthetic grass, hundreds of plants and many new trees connect everything together. And there are surprises, like the long and low bamboo tunnel, hand-woven and lined with tree-trunk benches. These beg all who enter to sit, have a snack, and relax. 

There is a correlation between children who are risk takers and their reading confidence. Supporting that are over a dozen climbing structures dotted throughout the space that start with a low entry point and graduate to taller tree-house-like structures. Some structures are stable, but others like bridges and steps have a distinct wobble, allowing children choices for building confidence.

Constructivists, those that accept the widely-held belief that children are the main drivers of their learning, set up environments along with the curriculum for the brain to store and retrieve in an endless cycle of learning. This requires skill on the part of teachers and parents, observing and analyzing children as they engage. These observations lead to making adjustments, and keep novelty in the curriculum. This is because the brain is a “novelty seeker”!

An example of this cycle of observation and adjustment enhanced the design of the new Learning Space. Teachers watched children fill buckets at a hand-washing sink and carry them over to sand pits in the old yard. Even with daily reminders about the sink as a place for hand washing only, at the end of the day it would be clogged with sand. 

0j7a0124In the new Learning Space, the water and sand are partnered to support the brain as a “novelty seeker.” Observing the children in action, it was clear that they drive their own learning. They were filling buckets, cups and hands with water and without adult intervention learned how to fill buckets, cups and hands, carry them to the sand pit, and mix the perfect blend for their waterways, tunnels, roads, and molds. This was science and math, construction and architecture, at work! They were making discoveries that could someday lead to solving a world problem like dam construction or erosion of foundations from water. 

The team who met in the fall of 2016 to begin designing Puxi Elementary School’s new Learning Space never strayed from their collective understanding of the physical, psychological, biological, and physiological needs of children. All shared a deep connection to their professional and their personal life. Because of their connection to both, the team provided children an opportunity to fulfill the SAS mission of creating life-long, passionate learners. They succeeded on a grander scale by providing a learning environment with an excellent disguise – to children it’s play, but we know it’s also their work. 

 

By Teri Lynn Ferentz,  

Shanghai American School, Puxi Elementary Vice Principal 

 

 

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