CORNWALL — Sixth-grade students at Bingham Memorial School in Cornwall, along with their teacher Emily Hoyler, embarked upon an interesting project last fall.
They were inspired by a field trip to Shelburne Farms for a workshop on some of the United Nations’ global sustainability missions.
Hoyler’s students latched onto an idea to foster equitable and sustainable spaces in their community and brought their motivation back to the classroom. They formalized a vision to reimagine a long history of fort building at Bingham elementary with a new space designated for building structures with loose parts and recycled materials within which students of all ages could play.
Carter Lee, one of the seven students in the sixth-grade class, recalled being a kindergartener at Bingham and was motivated to change the culture of segregated play by age.
“I sort of really wanted everyone to play together,” he said. “I remember being scared of the big sixth-graders and I really wanted to get away from that and try to get everyone to play together.”
The class was excited to borrow some of the sustainable theories of Loose Parts, a concept that suggests random objects used in creative and open-minded ways make better play tools than those designated for specified purposes (for example, a large cardboard box is everyone’s favorite toy).
For student Jack Wallace, another motivation was just plain and simple fun.
A main component of the playground at Bingham had been removed for safety concerns the year prior, leaving students a little disappointed by their options.
“Recess is something that every kid likes, no matter what age. It’s a good change just to have fun, let loose. With that element taken out, we just felt like we needed something new,” Jack said.
So they appealed to the principal and the school board for approval and then moved on to hosting a fund-raiser called “Moving for Materials,” whereby the students moved through a kind of obstacle course and received donations for their activity at each station. They raised nearly $400 and had a budget to move forward with their project.
With support from other students, the playground committee, the principal’s office and many parents and local supporters, the team broke ground late last fall. It was a mere 3 degrees when they went to lay the landscaping fabric over the 30-foot-by-20-foot area that was designated for this project, but they found it was rewarding to see the area they had been planning in the classroom take shape outside. In the next session the students and volunteers laid woodchips over the landscaping fabric and then it was time for supplies.
The class used the school’s newsletter to send out requests for materials and started seeing milk crates, logs, tarps, ropes, tires, rocks, pallets, PVC pipes, 55 gallon drums and hay bales show up at school.
Hoyler’s class cut the ribbon and opened the Loose Parts area just before holiday break.
Before the project began the sixth-graders each wrote down goals for the project.
“Our goals all started with the words ‘I will,’” explained student Naomi Brightman. “I just like that we made that goal and said ‘I will’ and we actually did it, we achieved it. It was just amazing seeing that we put all this work into something that actually turned out just the way we wanted it to.”
Over the winter months, the sixth-graders watched as other students explored the materials and area.
“The Loose Parts area went from mostly building to a lot of just doing stuff with the materials,” said Jack. “At first it seemed kind of weird to us, but then it was like, ‘Well, this is what we put it in here for.’ It wasn’t, ‘Come in here to build or don’t come in here at all,’ it was about coming in here to be creative.”
They watched other kids drum on the barrels that were originally meant for storing materials, create obstacles with the wood blocks, roll in the barrels and invent new ways to play in the space.
To maintain order and fairness, some rules have been established to ensure safety in the new space. Hoyler’s class (after some classroom lessons on government) decided to establish a “village council” and “elders” for the play space to help manage the area and communicate the rules. As in any democracy they would have representatives from each class to voice ideas and concerns about the space. (In the end, they decided that this elaborate model wasn’t needed for the number of people interested in playing in the space.)
They also met with free play expert and local filmmaker Erin Davis, whose film “The Land” documented an experimental free play space in Wales.
Davis helped explain the difference between hazards and risks in play, suggesting that adults and guardians should help minimize hazards in play, while allowing for risks to be taken. Knowing that you are taking a risk and choosing to do so is a learning experience for kids and one that can be developmentally enriching in a play space, the theory goes, helping kids learn how to solve problems, make choices and work together.
In the Loose Parts Playground students are learning and experimenting with parts and tools that are hazard-free but still inspire creative thinking and exploration for kids of all ages.
The success of Bingham’s project has caught the attention of other schools and organizations as well.
“When we got underway I was excited by the idea that with the attention we could bring to this project, other schools might be able to learn and see what we were doing and maybe make their own Loose Parts playground,” said sixth-grader Layne Chant.
Hoyler arranged a Google Hangout with another class at the Chester-Andover School and the students talked to each other about the process, challenges and successes of the Loose Parts project.
Hoyler’s students have created a website for the Loose Parts Project (https://sites.google.com/addisoncentralsu.org/looseparts/home) and are working on a documentary on the project.
Eli Marks is the student project manager for the documentary, helping assign roles to his classroom peers and make sure the video is completed on time.
“Part of the motivation for me was that we were going to leave something here when we’re gone,” Eli says about the project. “It’s cool to think that we could contribute something that would turn into tradition and become a forever part of the school.”
For Hoyler, the project has offered an opportunity not just for her students to build a legacy at the school, but has helped build connections between real and physical projects and classroom studies.
“It’s become a real vehicle to expand upon other things we’re doing in class,” said Hoyler. “Whether it’s math or storytelling, there’s a connection to Loose Parts that has come back into the classroom.”
While the area is open and kids play there every day at recess, everyone agrees that there is still work to do. One of Hoyler’s students, Nora Wootten, is working on modeling how they could create life-sized Lincoln Logs using straws cut to scale.
“We had an issue where one of the large birch logs fell on a second-grader and trapped him,” explained classmate Naomi Brightman. “He was fine, but it made us think about materials that we wouldn’t have seen as hazards to us that could be a hazard to a younger kid. So now we’re considering what we could use those same materials for that would be safe and fun for everyone. We’ve come up with some ideas and have been building models to see how they can work.”
Naomi and her classmates are considering other materials to bring in this spring and ways to encourage safe and experimental play in the Loose Parts area that could be a staple component of Bingham Memorial School for many years to come.
To learn more about the Loose Parts Playground, visit https://sites.google.com/addisoncentralsu.org/looseparts/home or contact Emily Hoyler at [email protected]