Designing a Playground!

By Miriam Kelsey, July 23, 2009

Grade Level

  • Elementary School


  • Summer Design Institute

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science

Lesson Time

450 minutes for classroom activities. (Note: This an integrated unit with fifteen 1/2 hour lessons spanning over 3-4 weeks. This is a thorough, integrated unit.)


Students are challenged to design a playground apparatus that is age-appropriate and safe.  Subject areas of the unit include math, science, language arts, and life skills. Students will be engaged in the design process by the following: Students investigate the design challenge by:
  • Taking pictures of their favorite playground equipment and sorting pictures by characteristics of movement.
  • Making a class pictograph of favorite playground equipment.
  • Investigating the properties of 2D and 3D shapes to facilitate their understanding of design.
  • Interviewing friends and peers about playground equipment.
  • Researching playground equipment around the world.
  • Finding (with the help of parents and the teacher) experts in the field to collaborate with (architects, designers, playground companies).
  • Investigating simple machines found on the playground.
Students frame & re-frame the problem:
  • Group discusses if their design ideas have changed after their research.
  • Students evaluate safety constraints.
Students generate possible solutions by brainstorming ideas. Students edit & develop:
  • Students design a prototype including a picture, written description, and model.
Students share and evaluate:
  • Students participate in group discussion.
  • Students interview friends about design idea.
  • Students share design idea with mentors.
Students finalize the solution and process:
  • Students use input from potential clients (friends), mentors, and group.
  • Students make final prototype.
Students articulate the solution and process:
  • Students present design to mentor.
  • Students present design to class.
  • Students send design to PTA for future playground.
  • Student designers participate in school or system science fair.
  • Students send designs to playground companies for collaboration.
Community or Global Impact:
  • Students volunteer with groups installing a community playground.
  • Students are challenged to find a way to design playground equipment that has multiple functions as play and provides a life-improving design for the “other 90%.”

National Standards

Standard 1. Level I. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process 1. Prewriting: Uses prewriting strategies to plan written work 2. Drafting and Revising: Uses strategies to draft and revise written work 3. Editing and Publishing: Uses strategies to edit and publish written work (e.g., proofreads using a dictionary and other resources; edits for grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling at a developmentally appropriate level; incorporates illustrations or photos; uses available, appropriate technology to compose and publish work; shares finished product) 4. Evaluates own and others’ writing (e.g., asks questions and makes comments about writing, helps classmates apply grammatical and mechanical conventions) 5. Uses strategies to organize written work (e.g., includes a beginning, middle, and ending; uses a sequence of events) 6. Uses writing and other methods (e.g., using letters or phonetically spelled words, telling, dictating, making lists) to describe familiar persons, places, objects, or experiences 7. Writes in a variety of forms or genres (e.g., picture books, friendly letters, stories, poems, information pieces, invitations, personal experience narratives, messages, responses to literature) Writes for different purposes (e.g., to entertain, inform, learn, communicate ideas) Standard 2. Level I. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing Standard 3. Level I. Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions Standard 4. Level I. Gathers and uses information for research purposes 1. Generates questions about topics of personal interest 2. Uses a variety of sources to gather information (e.g., informational books, pictures, charts, indexes, videos, television programs, guest speakers, Internet, own observation)
Standard 5. Level I. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process Standard 7. Level I. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
Listening and Speaking
Standard 8. Level I. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes 1. Contributes to group discussions.  2. Asks questions in class (eg., when he or she is confused; to seek other's opinions and comments) 3. Responds to questions and comments (eg., give reasonings in support of opinions, responds to others' ideas) 3. Follows rules of conversation and group discussion (e.g., takes turns, raises hand to speak, stays on topic, focuses attention on speaker) 4. Uses different voice level, phrasing, and intonation for different situations (e.g., small group settings, informal discussions, reports to the class) 5. Uses level-appropriate vocabulary in speech (e.g., number words; words that describe people, places, things, events, location, actions; synonyms, antonyms; homonyms, word analogies, common figures of speech) 6. Gives and responds to oral directions  


Students will:
  • understand that geometric shapes are integral in representing real-world things
  • use a variety of problem-solving strategies
  • use computation to solve real-world problems
  • be able to apply properties of geometry
  • display and interpret data using graphs
  • be able to understand and apply concepts of force and motion
  • understand the nature of science knowledge, scientific inquiry and scientific enterprise
  • be able to use the writing process to write in a variety of genres
  • be able to read for information
  • be able to use listening and speaking skills for different purposes
  • use thinking and reasoning skills in the design process
  • use strategies to work well with others
Regarding Mathematics, students will have a basic understanding of: problem solving, computation, geometry, and data analysis. Regarding Science, students will have a basic understanding of: forces and motion (gravity, position and motion, pushing and pulling, motion, and the nature of science. Regarding Life Skills, students will use “Thinking and Reasoning” skills and “Working with Others” skills. Regarding Language Arts, students will have a basic understanding of: pre-writing, drafting and revision, editing and publishing, the ability to evaluate their own and others writing, strategies to organize written work, descriptive writing, list-making, phonetic spelling, writing in a variety of forms, writing for a variety of purposes, the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing, grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions, and gathering and using information for research purposes.


Playgrounds around the world: Simple Machines: Play Pumps:  Safety at the Playground by Marylee Knowlton. Crabtree Pub. Co. ISBN 0778743233 Kitten Castle by Mel Friedman. Math Matters  


  • disposable cameras
  • butcher paper (for class graph of playgrounds and for the table of 3D attributes)
  • pencils
  • markers
  • colored pencils
  • crayons
  • paint
  • yardstick
  • 3D shapes: cubes, spheres, cones, rectangular prisms, triangular prisms, square-based pyramid, triangular-based pyramid, cylinders
  • 2D shapes: circles, squares, triangles, oval, pentagons, trapezoids, hexagon, octagons
  • small plastic kittens (optional)
  • Floam
  • modeling clay
  • blocks
  • tooth-picks
  • marshmallows
  • pipe-cleaners
  • magnetic spheres
  • wooden craft sticks
  • rubber bands
  • straws
  • string
  • glue
  • drawing paper
  • construction paper
  • tracing paper
  • movable figurines or dolls
  • lined writing paper


The Design Process Review the Challenge: Students are challenged to design a playground apparatus that is age-appropriate and safe (constraints). Investigate the problem or opportunity: Lesson 1: 1. Students will use disposable cameras and be given an assignment to take pictures of a playground and playground structures. Students will bring the pictures to school and discuss and sort the pictures into meaningful groups they determine.  Then, students will be asked to sort pictures based on characteristics of movement: spinning, jumping, swinging, climbing, or balancing, etc. (Remediation: Students can use kinesthetic movements to help understanding such as spinning, jumping, swinging and item, balancing on one leg or climbing. You can demonstrate during recess.) Lesson 2: 1. Students will make a large class pictograph representing the results of each student’s favorite playground structure. Pictures of the playground apparatus will be placed on one axis of the graph. Each student will cut out and decorate a paper student. Then, each student will make his/her vote by gluing it on the pictograph or bar graph relative to the piece of equipment he or she is voting for.  (Materials: butcher paper, markers, yardstick, paper student outline or wooden craft stick.) 2. Students will use mathematical language to make observations about the class graph: a) Which structure had the most votes? b) Which structure had the least? c) Did any structures have an equal amount of votes? d) Do you notice any patterns? e) Did boys or girls choose the same play structure? Lesson 3: 1. Students will discuss the geometric 2D and 3D shapes they see in the playground pictures and at playgrounds. (Pre-requisite: Recognize 2D and 3D shapes.) Students will investigate the properties of interacting 3D shapes to build structures. After reading Kitten Castle, students will design their own kitten castle with 3D shapes for each kitten in the story. (One kitten doesn’t like any corners – so he lives inside a cylinder; another likes to climb so he lives in a tower – a cone above a cylinder; one kitten feels secure when everything is the same – he lives in a cube.) As students design and construct the kitten castle, they will discover which shapes can be stacked, which roll, and which can do both. Students will sort and graph the 3D shapes by whether the shapes will stack, roll, or stack and roll. Students will complete a table chart of the 3D qualities.  (Optional homework: Students go on a shape hunt: Look for 2D and 3D shapes around their house or the school.) Lesson 4: 1. Students will interview other students and friends about what playground apparati are their favorites and have them explain why.  Then, students will share their interview results with their design teams. Students will have a picture of each of the play apparatus on the school playground. Students can pick their favorite one and the students can make a tally mark for each vote. (Challenge Differentiation: Students have a 1-4 scale on the interview sheet. Interviewees are asked to rate four apparatus in order, from least favorite to most favorite. Students tally the votes for each rating and determine least to most favorite for the group.)    Students will make a bar graph of the results and interpret the results. Lesson 5: 1. Students will investigate typical playgrounds around the world using books and the internet.  Students can make pictures of their favorite playground apparatus to hang in the classroom. 2. Students will learn about simple machines used on the playground. The lesson starts by viewing pictures of Stone Hedge. Students are asked to think about how the large boulders were moved. Have students supply ideas and act out the ideas. For example, if students say leverage, use a board and a block to demonstrate. (seesaw = lever and fulcrum) This Web site - - provides pictures of simple machines. Teachers/students can use their science textbooks for additional simple machines information. Students can investigate the playground pictures or school playground to find examples of simple machines.  Students will add simple machine labels to the classroom display of playgrounds. Lesson 6: 1. Teacher, parents, and contacts will brainstorm to find local experts in the field for collaboration with the kindergarten class. Students will write questions about their ideas to engineers, architects, design teachers, or playground design companies. Possible venues: colleges, high schools, engineering schools, architectural firms, design firms.  Students write questions about their design. If you can only find one “expert” then compile a class book of student’s questions. Frame/Reframe the Problem: Ask the students: Did your investigation affect your initial reactions to the challenge? Did you identify the correct problem? Take time to re-examine, rethink, and redefine the correct problem. Based on your investigations have you changed your idea for design? If so, what led you to change and why? As a class discuss any problems to see if adjustments need to be made. Lesson 7: 1. Students will meet in design groups to re-examine initial ideas, re-think new ideas, and focus on design problem.  Students should take notes, draw pictures of the ways their group has re-defined the problem. Lesson 8: 1. Ask the students: Did you adhere to safety constraints? Students will exchange stories about getting hurt on the playground and try to determine the causes.  Teacher may need to scaffold connections or provide scenarios for students to investigate.  Possible concerns: height, traffic pattern, playground rules, age of students playing at same time, slippery surfaces. Resource - Safety at the Playground by Marylee Knowlten. Generate Possible Solutions: Lesson 9: (1 hour - up to 2 sessions) 1. Brainstorm possible solutions!  Use team-building activities to develop lots of ideas.  Have each person responsible for giving at least two ideas, keep the feedback positive and record ideas by writing, sketching, or modeling. “Asset map” your group to see who will do best with different activities. (Drawing, writing, research, construction of model.)  Think of crazy ideas outside the box!   Assess how students use life skills to work productively as a group, give feedback, and have group rate each other and self. Edit & Development: (team, individual, or partners) Lesson 10: (1.5 hours – up to 3 sessions) 1. Have each child decide which design idea he or she wants to use. Each child should develop a prototype using all of the design steps below. 1. Picture – details with labeled diagram of features and parts. 2. Written description – use your detailed picture to help you describe: a) What the apparatus looks like. b) What is it made from? c) How it will move, or how you will move when on it? d) What geometric shapes will be used to make it? 3. Model – build a model of your design (include a child or children on your model)     (Possible materials available for use: Floam; modeling clay; blocks; toothpicks and marshmallows; pipe cleaners; magnetic spheres and cylinders; wooden craft sticks; crayons; colored pencils; rubber bands; straws; string; glue; paper; construction paper; 2D shapes; 3D shapes.) & nbsp; Share & Evaluate your process and ideas: Lesson 11: (1 to 1.5 hours – up to 3 sessions) 1. (20 minuntes) Have each student share the design process and ideas with their group. They should make notes of suggestions, changes, or good points. 2. (30 minutes) Each student should take his or her prototype outside including the written description, pictures, and model.  Each student should interview three other children about his or her design. In the interview, the student should:
  • Tell the classmate about his or her playground apparatus and what it does.
  • Explain how his or her design works.
  • Tell the classmate about how they will move or how the apparatus will move.
  • Ask the classmate if he or she has any suggestions to improve the design.
  • Have the classmate rate it for: safety, fun, and usage (high-low).
  • Assessment: The student should then make a table of the results.
3. (30 minutes) Have each student share his or her prototype(s) with the class expert(s).  The teacher will compile a book of the pictures and the students’ written descriptions of each playground apparatus.  The teacher will take a video of each team/student explaining the diagrams, models and design processes.  Students will ask for final feedback from our class expert(s) to help finalize the solution. Finalize the Solution: Lesson 12: (1.5 hours – up to 3 sessions) 1. Have the children develop their design solutions utilizing input from experts who will be potential clients (other kids from the playground) and their design mentors. A. Each student should make his or her final prototype, a working model of the play apparatus.  The student should be able to demonstrate how the apparatus will move and how a child will move when on the apparatus. B. Each student should provide visuals, including: pictures; picture of prototype; detailed, labeled diagram; graphs; survey; traffic flow. C. Each student should provide a detailed written description, including: how the apparatus moves; how a child moves on the apparatus; the safety rules for using apparatus; traffic flow of children; safety rating; thrill factor; warnings (spinning > dizzy; height > falling; climbing > need athletic shoes; etc.). D. Each student should practice their Final Presentation.  Each student should write note cards and practice reading fluently with partner.  The Final Presentation should include:
  • original design idea
  • changes the student made and and explanation of why the changes were made
  • the craziest idea the student had
  • who helped the most: the classmate interviews, the mentor, or the team?
  • how the safety constraints were met
  • how the requirements of the challenge were met
  • what the student learned from the design process
  • what the student could improve on next time
Articulate the Solution and Process: 2. Final Presentation: Each student/team will present their design solution to the class mentor(s) and class. (Video recording taken.)  Students should present everything outlined in Lesson 12 above. Allow time for questions! 3. Students will be evaluated by mentor, teacher, self, and other students.


Formative Assessments: Lesson 2: Students write about the class graph of favorite play structure. (Use grade-level writing rubric for informational writing.) Lesson 3: Students make kitten castle and sort 3D shapes by attributes. Lesson 4: Students make a bar graph of playground interviews and interpret results. Lesson 6: Students label simple machines. Lesson 7: Students write design questions to experts. Lesson 9: Assess group skills, teacher, group members, and self.  Check that each person contributed two ideas. Lesson 10: Teacher gives specific feedback to students on what they need to continue to work on for final presentation and what they have done well. Lesson 11: Each group compiles a list of suggestions from the group and clients. Make a table of client surveys. Lessons 11 & 12:  Assessment of: Visuals, Written Description of Model, Written Report, Model, Presentations.  Teacher gives specific feedback to students on what they need to continue to work on for final presentation and what they have done well.  Mentor gives feedback on final design process. Final Presentation Rubrics: 1. Working Prototype Model 2. Spoken Final Presentation 3. Written Summary of Design Process (Lower ages spell phonetically or draw pictures and dictate ideas to teacher.) 4. Visual Presentation 5. Design Constraints (safety and age appropriate) 6. Life Skills

Enrichment Extension Activities

Have a school Science Fair for the designers to present to the other students, teachers, and parents. Designers can send in the diagrams, photographs, and written descriptions to the PTA for future playground additions! Student playground designers can contact groups who are installing playgrounds and submit their designs for consideration. Students can write to playground design companies to share their ideas and get feedback or collaboration. Students can design a whole playground using all the design prototypes set up on a large table. Teacher or student playground designers can offer to volunteer for groups who are installing playgrounds (for a neighborhood renewal, church, or charity).  Take photographs and write a summary.  Determine what changes you would need to make to your design after you have made a playground. Students can write persuasive letters to convince residents to build a community playground. Teacher can tell students about the African “Play Pumps International” Play Pumps are an invention that is both life-changing and life-saving.  The PlayPump systems are basically just water pumps powered by children at play.  Installed near schools, the PlayPump system doubles as a water pump and a merry-go-round for children.  Rather than spending their days traveling many miles on foot to collect water for their family, children can attend school and pump clean water from distant sources just by playing on the PlayPump merry-go-round. See if students can think of ways their designs could be used for another purpose to improve life and meet a critical need and design for the other 90%

Teacher Reflection

Note how this lesson could be adjusted after its initial implementation. How successful were the students?  What did the assessment demonstrate about the students’ learning?  What skills do the students need to revisit?  What instructional strategies worked and what made them successful?  What will you change the next time you use this lesson?  Why?

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