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A Playground That Teaches Science

Kids love the unique playground, and teachers have created a 47-page curriculum to go with it.

PHOTO BY STEW MILNE

Jordan Govoni is spinning. Around and around he goes, in tight circles. The scene makes a nearby adult recall an unhappy amusement park experience. But Jordan is gleeful.

He is riding the standing spinner, a sort of one-person merry-go-round that revolves around a post. The spinner is the latest stop on his romp through the playground at West Parish Elementary in Gloucester, Mass.

Jordan simply hopped on, pushed off once with his foot, and began to turn. And turn. He’s learned that if he leans in, he turns faster. If he leans out, he turns more slowly. He can slow almost to a stop, then lean in again and speed up. Jordan has discovered angular momentum.

Angular momentum is a key physics concept. It applies to spinning atoms, the rotating earth, and even the way galaxies move. Jordan doesn’t know that yet, but he will. This year West Parish is implementing a new 47-page curriculum. It teaches physical science concepts based on slides, swings, spinners, and a host of other standard and custom playground equipment.

At various times this year, students at the K-5 public school will take to the playground during class time. They’ll drop objects of different sizes and weights from the side of the eight-foot-tall “Gravity Boat.” They’ll race down the double slide, riding on different types of material to learn about friction. They’ll slide down the slide while a ball sits on their laps. Does the ball stop at the same time they do? Introducing Newton’s law of inertia.

The three side-by-side swings are all on different lengths of chain — a great way to learn about pendulums. And that adjustable see-saw? It’s a simple lever. Put a fourth-grader on one end and a teacher on the other. Where does the teacher have to sit to make it balance? Let’s talk about mechanical advantage.

Fun and Learning

“He’s just so enthralled,” says Kaylynn Govoni, Jordan’s mom. “It doesn’t matter how many times he comes here; he finds something new.” Govoni is a member of the West Parish PTO. She’s here today to touch up the paint on an eight-foot map of the United States that decorates the nearby parking lot. She’s also a middle school science teacher, and she recognizes the value of the playground, known as the West Parish School Science Park.

“It’s phenomenal. It really, really is,” she says. “Now they can teach force and motion, which can be so abstract, and the kids can come out here and do it. Now they can teach pulley systems and levers, and they can come out here and do it and get it reinforced. It’s just a really great hands-on extra learning tool for the community.”

No doubt, the Science Park is a special place. It was designed from the ground up for the purpose of teaching science. Each piece of equipment reflects a scientific concept. Signs around the playground tell kids what to look for: gears, levers, pulleys, pendulums, and more. And the curriculum will help them understand.

The idea came from a science-based playground at Sciencenter, a science museum in Ithaca, N.Y. There’s also one at the New York Museum of Science in New York City. But the one at West Parish may be the only facility of its kind at a school in the United States.

At heart, the Science Park is an outsized community-built playground. It consists of three major segments: stand-alone playground equipment such as swings and see-saw; the 60-foot-long Gravity Boat, with a host of mechanical devices made by machinists who volunteered their time; and a 40-foot-long structure in the shape of a swordfish that includes organ pipes, a special magnifying lens, and other elements related to sound and light.

Some of the popular and unusual items include:

  • A surge swing, which has a large spring at the top of each of its two support posts. When students swing back and forth, they feel a surge of energy that seems to move them faster — energy stored in the springs.
  • A spring bridge. The walkway consists of three consecutive beams connected by springs. The center beam is attached to the ground on a fulcrum, so parts of the bridge move up and down based on weight distribution.
  • The air lifter. Students turn a wheel that operates a blower. The blower can be aimed at various tubes containing items such as ping pong balls. By turning the wheel fast enough, students can keep the balls in the air.
  • The foam lifter, known popularly as the popcorn machine. Again, students turn a wheel to operate an air blower. The blower lifts Styrofoam pieces contained in a metal funnel. Turn quickly enough and you can create a Styrofoam tornado.
  • Two “fish runs.” Painted fish are attached to a bicycle-type chain. By turning the wheel, students make the fish “swim.” One fish run has a higher gear ratio than the other, meaning the same number of turns moves a different number of fish on each machine.
  • A pulley system that raises an anchor in the Gravity Boat.
  • The organ pipes, donated by the C.B. Fisk company, a renowned organ builder located in Gloucester.

Building a Dream

Four years ago West Parish PTO member Amy Ballin visited Sciencenter. A middle school counselor and former science teacher, she saw an opportunity to address two issues: West Parish’s need for a new playground and the general need for improved science education.

The original concept was to create a place for what educators call inquiry-based education. At the elementary level teachers have a lot of subjects to cover. “Science is really put on the back burner,” says Ballin. With the park, students like Jordan can explore and experience science without even realizing they are learning. She brought the idea to Principal Jim Gutstadt.

“I thought it was a great idea,” says Gutstadt. “It was ambitious.”

Not just ambitious, as it turned out. Enormous. It started with a good idea and kept growing. Originally, the thought was to purchase traditional playground equipment, choosing it to illustrate specific scientific principals, then arrange it in the shape of a boat. That grew into the concept for the Gravity Boat. The sound-and-light swordfish was added. Plans grew for tables, benches, an attractive entrance.

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“It took off. And it turned into a much bigger project than any of us could have imagined,” says Gutstadt.

In the end, building the science park took a Herculean three-year effort led by the West Parish PTO and including teachers, administrators, and dozens of community members. The group raised more than $100,000 in donations and grants, with donated labor and materials worth the same amount again and more. And Gloucester is not a wealthy suburb. It’s a middle class community of 30,000 known for its 350-year-old working fishing port — the oldest in the United States.

The science park could have been built entirely from catalog playground equipment, says Gutstadt. The mechanical systems, the architecture reflecting Gloucester’s fishing heritage, the intricate topographical map made of wood could all have been eliminated. And there were times during the process when many of those elements sat on the chopping block.

“There were times when it was a little bit hairy. Do we have enough money? Could we get enough money?” says Gutstadt. It came down to one thought: “How big do we dream?”

The West Parish PTO has a history of dreaming big. Starting in the mid-1990s, the group built three new classrooms for the school to relieve crowding. It raised money to create a nature trail. At the time the science park idea arose, the group had just completed a $35,000 playground on one side of the school. Now they wanted to replace the sprawling but dilapidated structure on the other side.

“I tell people it’s an organization that will do anything for the school, and they will,” says Gutstadt.

Rallying Support

At first, many residents didn’t see a need for the “fancy playground,” says Ballin. But once they recognized the value of what the PTO and school were trying to accomplish, they got behind it in a big way. One parent donated a crane for the build. Another built a classic New England-style stone wall at the entrance; Ballin estimates the value at $10,000. Several machinists worked on and off for a year to design and build the pulley towers and other machines.

Employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boston read about the project in the newspaper. They donated $5,000, and 10 of them took time off from work to help with the build.

As many as 200 people came to help construct the playground over five days in May. Days began before sunrise and ended well after sunset. On one memorable Sunday, about 50 people turned out in a full-fledged nor’easter. Some worked under tents, trying to keep materials dry. Others lined school hallways, working on the topographical map. Kids gathered in a classroom to paint the fish for the fish run. “It was a torrential rain, and it rained all day,” recalls Gutstadt. That set the project timeline back. In fact, it rained almost every weekend thereafter until the end of the school year.

Students first got to play in the science park on the last day of school. There was a light rain that day, too, but the kids weren’t deterred. “They loved it,” says Gutstadt. “It was just amazing for them.”

Finishing touches, such as adding the stone wall, some tables, benches, and the donor stone, took place over the summer and during the next year. The science park dedication this past June drew hundreds of well-wishers, many of whom supported the project with their hands and their wallets.

In the year it has been open, the playground has become a destination. Every kid in town knows about it. Birthday parties are held here. Moms who live two towns away schedule play dates here. A Head Start group came every week during the summer. And Boston’s Museum of Science, located an hour away, is interested in bringing groups here, too.

The PTO hired a consultant from the museum to work with teachers to create the curriculum, which is new this year. “For elementary teachers, science is not a strength for most of them. Now, we have a few that have a background in science, but for most elementary teachers, science has been something that has been somewhat scary,” says Gutstadt. The curriculum, which explains concepts and then details class activities for different pieces of equipment on the playground, helps teachers refresh their knowledge of science and gives them some concrete ways to demonstrate scientific principals to students.

Money Matters

In the end, raising money for the park was the biggest challenge.

“If people want to do a science park, they can do it with a lot of traditional equipment. It doesn’t have to be this elaborate,” says Gutstadt. He refers to the traditional playground on the other side of the school: “Everything that happens on that playground is connected to science. There’s inertia, there’s momentum, there’s friction. You can bring in something like this (curriculum) guide and make a playground about science.”

True, says Ballin. But one advantage of building a science park is that grant money is available for science-based projects. She estimates that she wrote about 30 grant proposals and received 10. Included in those were grants from major corporations such as Verizon, General Electric, and a $10,000 grant from Toyota that she considered a turning point in building popular support for the project. The best option for grants, she says, turned out to be local companies and organizations. The PTO received grants from local utilities and the county in which Gloucester is located, among others.

“When you look at most playgrounds, you’re going to spend $70,000. Most schools do. So is it worth another $30,000 or $40,000 to try to make it special?” asks Ballin. “Gloucester’s not a wealthy community. If we can do it, most communities can.”

Craig Bystrynski is editor in chief of PTO Today magazine and ptotoday.com. Connect with Craig in the ptotoday.com Community.

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Comments

  1. Posted by - Wendy Alexander on Apr. 11, 2012

    I love making the playground a multipurpose area. We are in the process of collecting ideas to refresh our playgrounds. Among other things, we want to paint some of the asphalt surfaces so that the kids can use them to reinforce math and science concepts. Does anyone know where we can find more ideas like the ones mentioned in this article?
  2. Posted by - Surekha on Nov. 04, 2010

    Fantastic job on coming up with these ideas and implementing this playground. The kids are really fortunate to have a playground like this. We too want to build a playground for 10 - 12 year old children and after reading this article I was excited to implement some of these ideas in our playground as well. I tried finding pictures of the different items but could not find any. Could you please send me pictures of these playground items or direct me to a site where I could view them.

    Thanking you,

    Surekha
  3. Posted by - Margaret on May. 28, 2008

    I am a second grade teacher in NC. I love this idea and it has inspired me to encourage the PTO at my school to do something like this.
  4. Posted by - Nancy Lane on Apr. 24, 2008

    I am the Education and Outreach Coordinator for FIRST, based in Manchester, NH. We're all about engaging kids in hands-on science and critical thinking skills, and this playground is fantastic! It gives me some really good ideas for expanding what we already offer to kids and schools. I'll definitely be taking a road trip.

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