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The physics of fun
Brooklyn teacher leads students on “learning expedition” to design best playground
by Ellie Spielberg | June 23, 2011 New York Teacher issue
Put together Newtonian physics with clinical psychology, sustainable materials and industry experts — and kids are going to have a blast in Scott Hendstrand’s class.
Witness the teenagers engaged at their team tables in the science suite at the Brooklyn School of Collaborative Studies, planning, building, experimenting, discussing, laughing, pondering.
Hendstrand’s students at the Carroll Gardens school are on another “learning expedition,” as he often refers to class projects.
Kids look forward to coming to class. Learning takes place with curiosity, focus, structure, vested interest, freedom, collaboration and joy.
Just in case you’re tempted to be spoon-fed, there’s a poster of Yoda the Jedi master — opposite the wall of glass bell jars and other antique science equipment — saying “We’re CREW, not passengers.”
The decibels of fun are high on the scale. The dynamic physics teacher is a stabilizing force who is often invisible, taking on a supportive role.
“I’ll come around to your table but it’s your responsibility to solve the problem,” he says, echoing the sentiments of Yoda.
Hendstrand, who has been teaching for 17 years, used to be in the field of interior renovation, working closely with clients in the design process, and infuses class projects with healthy doses of reality.
Students must come up with product designs and sell them to the client. For this design project, the product is a new playground to be constructed behind the school and the clients are kindergarteners. Only one design will win the competition.
Hendstrand, who on June 7 was named the city’s 2011 winner of Outward Bound’s Excellence in Teaching for Expeditionary Learning, designed the curriculum, which meets mandated standards.
In the fall term, teams studied the theory of play. They listened to lecturers and read the work of other experts. They wrote essays on their own play history. Next came learning Newton’s Three Laws of Physics, which culminated in using the resolution of vectors to predict the motion of a Hot Wheels toy.
During three visits to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design — and one visit to the school from museum staff — students learned design basics and did self-assessments of their design elements.
At a class job fair, the project manager, Hendstrand, hired team managers from a pool of students, and these in turn hired other students to work on their teams. Applicants wrote resumes based on their accomplishments in the fall semester “and really had to sell themselves,” Hendstrand said.
Throughout the spring term, teams designed playgrounds before deadline for a playfair, when kindergartners would choose the winning design. Many students interviewed kindergartners to get ideas.
The common denominator was a natural setting for playing, so elements of nature were in all of the playground designs.
One team’s design featured piles of cut grass, a wooden jungle gym and playground equipment suspended from tree branches, such as a fabric swing that would hug the body like a hammock.
Another group had a boxing ring, a punching bag and monkey bars, designated as accessible to the grown men they’ve seen in playgrounds after hours doing chin-ups to stay in shape. The intergenerational playground offered plenty of soft grass for the little ones, and light, life-size human figures that could be moved around.
A model made by another team had a space-age-looking “spider climb,” a skateboard park ramp, a big, huggable roll toy called a spider monkey and twisting rungs of metal to climb. What’s more, there were plans afoot to build a big table that could be taken apart and put back together “for kids who like to destroy things,” said one student.
Yet another playground combined themes of sports, geography and nature, its centerpiece a giant outdoor sculpture of a globe that could be turned.
The Fun Fort was a combined castle, rock climb, slide and giant chalkboard.
“It’s very human, seeing students in their real learning events, their sublime moments,” Hendstrand said. “Those moments are highly individual and truly cannot be assessed or tested. That’s what teaching is — setting up a situation where students can have those moments as often as possible.”
The big moment for the design competition came on June 15, when the playground models were presented to the toughest critics in the business: kindergartners, in this case ones from the Brooklyn New School downstairs.
The children made the circuit and heard the pitches. There were many elements in each design that they liked. They preferred real rocks or climbing walls to ladders. They liked tubes to crawl through. They deliberated.
Finally they chose the winning playground. It was the one with the movable life-size figures.
We like the big toys you can play with was the general consensus.
See more photos in "The physics of fun" gallery.
Editor’s note: Scott Hendstrand wishes to thank Trish Clark of the New York City Parks Department and Cat Emil and Barry Richards of the Rockwell Group, a design firm in Manhattan, who were instrumental in the playground design course.