Almanac

Schools - March 9, 2011

Negotiating the school playground

by Miranda Simon

Some will grow up to be masters of persuasion and savvy entrepreneurs. Others will mellow into more generous sorts. For now, they trade blue foam bricks for cylinders and "noodle tubes" to build fortresses and ships — and make "marshmallow guns" to defend them with.

According to Principal David Ackerman, who is watching from the sidelines, Oak Knoll elementary schoolers are learning negotiation 101.

Oak Knoll is the first California school to have Imagination Playground on campus, Assistant Principal Kristen Gracia said. The $8,000 blue foam play kit was brought to Oak Knoll, a K-5 school, to wedge some unstructured play into kids' overscheduled daily lives, and give those who don't like sports an alternative way to enjoy recess.

But it's also meant to bolster their problem-solving skills, and help them deal with one another to get what they want.

The foam shapes, mats, balls and fabric pieces, designed by architect David Rockwell, are intended to fit together in specific combinations so children have to learn to negotiate to get what they need.

The kids often squabble, but teachers don't butt in unless it involves their safety. The school philosophy is minimum teacher intervention in the playground, so that children learn to fend for themselves. Children, in turn, establish their own, unspoken rules for coexistence, Mr. Ackerman said.

"They have to compromise, decide what's fair and what's not fair," he said.

To some parents, this looks chaotic, but those who really study the kids see they have made their own rules without anyone telling them what to do, he said.

Out of the array of recess-time equipment at Oak Knoll, Imagination Playground — purchased with a grant from the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation and funding from Oak Knoll's Parent-Teacher Organization — has been the most difficult to deal with for adults, Mr. Ackerman said. The adults would, on first impulse, try to settle children's squabbles themselves. The foam shapes, Mr. Ackerman said, have been a test in patience.

"It gives you faith in the kids' ability" to settle problems on their own, he said.

What the kids live out on the playground is reflected in their class work. Piecing Imagination Playground together is a problem-solving exercise, and gives the kids practice in collaboration and dealing with one another.

"All the recess (experiences) carry over to the classroom," he said. "If you go in today's classroom, it includes a lot more collective work than before."

Sharing and trading

When the cart full of Imagination Playground pieces rolled into the playground one noon in January, kids didn't automatically work together, Mr. Ackerman said. As the doors opened, each child rushed to pick his or her favorite shapes.

As their architectural plans became more ambitious, the only solution they found was to share and trade shapes, said Ms. Gracia, the assistant principal. This meant they had to learn some serious negotiation skills.

Almost two months later, Jack Barry, 9, and his brother Huck, 8, are building a fortress with what looks like a canal system. That fortress is under attack by Wylie Ocken, 8, using what he calls "marshmallow guns" (foam circles attached to floppy noodle tubes). Margot Gibbons, 6, and Esmirna Taylor, 7, are building a house or a ship — they'll decide as they go.

One of the girls asks Ms. Gracia for help with getting a piece they need from the boys, but Ms. Gracia turns her away.

Random notes

Imagination Playground is not the only tool for unstructured play at Oak Knoll.

The school's playground is bustling with bouncing elementary schoolers playing basketball, descending slides, or playing catch. Their high-pitched shrieks of joy blend with random notes from a playground piano — another (successful) experiment in unstructured play, Mr. Ackerman said. It's a brimming amusement park without the rides.

But despite the rich selection of toys and playground equipment, there isn't something for everyone. While most children rejoice when recess comes around, a handful of children may count the minutes until it's over.

"A lot of the kids who play with this are the kids who don't like sports, so recess has been very hard for them," he said. "This gives those kids something else that's not sports."

According to Mr. Ackerman, the school used to have a group of children who liked to play with mud rather than a basketball, but the puddle is not there anymore. He wonders whether kids would like to bring it back into the mix. It may not be as innovative as Imagination Playground, but making mud cakes is, after all, an old recipe for fun.

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