Incorporating time and space for key 21st century skills.
G. FAITH LITTLE
Initiative Director, 21st Century Learning
By G. FAITH LITTLE
Being aware of 21st century skills as a common phrase and focus in our schools is a first step many of us have taken toward planning and teaching for our students. We are integrating the language. We may have even tried a project as an assessment for one of our units. Yet, making the shift into full integration of real-world projects that set the stage for our students to practice these skills regularly eludes us.
Uchenna Ogu and Suzie Reynard Schmidt, in their article The Natural Playscape Project: A Real-World Study With Kindergarteners beautifully articulate a design that can be applied across grade levels and content areas. Students are the authors of their own playscape, with teachers as their guide and support. In this case, playscape refers to the natural playscape created by kindergarteners — a “playground with as few human-made components as possible”. The process brings together research, exploration, and the hard work of thinking and taking action, both individually and collaboratively, where the playscape is not a final project for the purpose of assessing learning. The playscape is the unit.
Lesson: The playscape is “designed to bring children back to nature and offer a wide range of open-ended play possibilities that allow children to be creative and use their imaginations.”
Application prompt: What is the playscape for your classroom? Consider the landscape students could create and navigate in math, social studies, foreign language, physical education, literature, or science. What world could they build that would engage their senses and invite them to learn in order to create?
Lesson: “To begin the project, teachers shared their own knowledge from studies about play and sustainable schoolyards with the children.” Teachers went on to share a text the children read together and articulated some boundaries for their building: "You may build houses small and hidden for the fairies, but please do not use living or artificial materials."
“With inspiration and wonder, we set off to imagine, play, and invent small worlds for fairies and other fantastical and real woodland creatures at a nearby park and on an empty back lot on the school campus that eventually became our natural playscape.”
Application prompt: What knowledge from your own field of study do students need in order to begin to plan or build their playscape? What texts will open new possibilities for them or serve as foundations for their invention? Consider what knowledge students truly need to begin and what knowledge it makes sense for them to discover on their own. Invite them to discover for themselves, serving as a mentor or guide rather than an expert giving out all the answers.
Lesson: Plan and prepare for meaningful collaboration: “…teachers offered each pair of children a tray of sand. Teachers provided glass beads, twigs, seashells, and other natural materials, as well as time to play, experience, create, imagine, and explore. Children used these materials to create small worlds, miniature playgrounds, or fairy houses. Teachers then asked the children to draw on all of their previous experiences, both indoors and out, to generate a comprehensive list of materials that they might want or need when designing their miniature playscapes. Pebbles, seeds, dirt, grass, leaves, and flowers all made their way onto the list and eventually into their work…Next, teachers invited the children to collaborate in small groups to create miniature playgrounds for the fairies and small woodland creatures.”
In the third year, the second-graders, who were the originators of the project while in kindergarten, rejoined the process as collaborators and consultants.
Application prompt: What mini-scape could students create as a model for their larger playscape? Instead of listing the materials they may need, support students in generating their own lists of materials. As a mentor, you may do the advanced work of obtaining possible materials, but have them waiting in the wings. Let students take ownership by asking for what they need. When grouping students to collaborate, give each student a specific role that requires an outcome, so that each person’s contribution can be seen.
Lesson: Committees were formed to investigate a specific aspect of the playscape in depth. After learning more deeply about their subject, children shared what they learned. “For example, since it was important to the current kindergartners to invite birds to the playscape, those involved with the Birdhouse Committee researched native Missouri birds and built birdhouses.” The committee members expressed their love for birds through letter writing, addressing their notes to the birds themselves and including important details from their learning, “We are bird experts. We can tell you apart. You are really cute. We hope you like to splash in the birdbaths. We made them look like flowers, because we thought you might like that.”
Application prompt: What are some buckets of information or concepts all of your students will need to understand in order to create a useful playscape? Consider grouping them and naming the groups as it makes most sense in your field. Are they architects? Technical writers? Applied mathematicians? Statisticians? Commentators? In what genres do people in these roles write?
Lesson: “Being on the committees engaged the children by allowing them to research and pursue one aspect of the playscape with depth.” At one stage in the process, kindergarteners were matched with second graders to explore their design process further. “The two age groups facilitated and scaffolded each other's learning as they talked about, represented, reflected on, and began to evaluate aspects of their own and their partners' design ideas.”
Application prompt: Whether it’s pairing students in different grade levels or perhaps pairing students with complementary skills, how can you support students to listen to their partner, communicate clearly, and come to an agreement on next steps? What skills do you need to teach? What practices should students engage in to get the most out of their collaboration in order to sharpen their own critical thinking skills?
Lesson: Ongoing reflection is key. During: “Throughout the natural playscape project, teachers encouraged children to frequently reflect on their experiences.” After: “At the end of the study, as a way to help children reflect on their growth and learning, teachers asked them questions about their experiences.”
Application prompt: What structure will you support, or put in place, so that students reflect after each step of their process? This reflection will allow them to quickly make use of their learning, going back to foundations or taking a risk, based on their findings. What will the final reflection look like? How can you support student to design their own reflection?
Consider responding to each application prompt as you plan for next year. Whatever grade level you teach, incorporating space and time for creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and reflection for your students will boost their 21st Century skill set!