you're reading...
Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Museums, Playgrounds or Something Else?

I guess I’m a really lucky–or blessed–educator.  I’ve been afforded a ton of great opportunities throughout my career, and those experiences have not only helped to shape my beliefs and actions, but more often than not, reinforced them.

You see, I believe in children’s abilities to think for themselves, and to a certain extent to direct their own learning. (My background is elementary–that’s why the caveat of “to a certain extent.”) I believe in my own ability–and expertise–to do what’s right for kids in my classroom, and I look at my classroom as a playground for thinking and learning. I use that word playground deliberately, as I also believe learning is fun. I believe in a growth mindset-that all of us can learn and grow through life experiences, and that we can have a profound impact on our own and others’ lives through our actions, and sometimes, our inaction. I teach my kids about metacognition, and I give them time to work on the challenges I set out, because I also believe learning can be hard work–and that’s a good thing. I encourage my kids to talk about the things they are interested in and/or worried about and I really don’t concern myself about what the political-or parental-ramifications might be. (I guess maybe that’s where lucky comes in, as parents generally trust me and I haven’t had any complaints about conversations I’ve had.)

Kids like being in my classroom, and I think mainly it’s because I treat them, not as an unlearned person who needs to be trained,  but as a learner who is “in process.” I listen to them and think with them and help them question and seek answers to their questions. I help them wonder and laugh and  enjoy the power and hard work of thinking and sharing thinking and learning together.

So in thinking of transforming schooling as we know it, in thinking of transforming learning spaces as we know them, a conversation on Twitter has me thinking of whether our learning spaces should be a playground of ideas and work and play and exploration and questioning and responding and reflection, with paces for loudness, with places to be alone or play together, with places that can arranged and rearranged to be any kind of space we imagine–a place where imagination soars.

a new climbing toy on our re-imagined playground-picture taken by @pammoran (

Or should the learning spaces in our schools be more like museums or galleries, with revolving exhibits and things to wonder about and mess with and tinker with as we ask our questions and work and play and explore and question and respond and reflect?

Untitled, 1976 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. A09242

Shouldn’t students be able to look at an object, perhaps JUST as magnificent as Calder’s mobile hanging so high in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and think and wonder and tinker to make something similar if they so choose?  Shouldn’t we, as teachers, think about the balance  of teaching and learning and laughing and sharing and storytelling and playing and reflecting and thinking and doing music and art and science and math and writing and reading and connecting as we help our students experience the real world?

So as I think about transforming education, I would keep my belief in children’s abilities to think for themselves  and my growth mindset and my giving them time to work hard and all the other things I listed above. But I would love to make our learning spaces more inviting, more like a comfortable playground or a museum or a gallery where learners can tinker and play and invent and innovate and dream and play and explore and create and talk and listen and experiment and play and laugh and sing and write and play and doodle and daydream and think and play and learn and play and play and play some more with all the cool tools and toys we would provide them for stimulation–and for quiet relaxation as well.

I’d want a Calder mobile as an exemplar of a masterpiece–to delight and daydream by, to explore balance and wind, to experience the gentle beauty of the non-symetrical movement and to stimulate and frame our ever changing world.

Museums, playgrounds or something else?

How can we make our spaces look more like them?

What would you want in your ideal learning space?

Could I have a Calder mobile, please?

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


12 thoughts on “Museums, Playgrounds or Something Else?

  1. what if our students took on the project of designing the school of the future? What would they come up with? Consider having your students take on this challenge….just think of the curricular links!

    Imagine, the first day of class: Your job this school year will be to design the school your children will go to.

    Posted by jerridkruse | August 29, 2010, 11:14 pm
    • I would recommend Starting From Scratch by Steven Levy which describes the year he decided to have the children design and build from scratch everything in the classroom along with the curriculum! Brilliant book and one of my favorites. Also look to Jill Ostrow’s Room with a Different View, she did the very project you just… with great results!

      Posted by dloitz | August 30, 2010, 3:15 am
      • David,
        Steven is now with expeditionary learning ( and we have several schools looking into that/trying it because of some work we have done with Steven. You’re right, Starting From Scratch is a fabulous story of an amazing teacher with an amazing group of kids. Thanks for offering that and Jill’s book as resources to our readers!

        Posted by Paula White | August 30, 2010, 6:08 am
  2. tried that last year with some kids, Jerrid, and they couldn’t think out of the box enough for me. LOL However, I would have loved to, and should have done it at the end of the year with my wiki kids. . . .

    Posted by Paula White | August 29, 2010, 11:25 pm
  3. What really worries me about the current direction of educational policy is how much we have been moving in the direction of limiting the experience children have in school rather than expanding it. we should be able to start with what children bring to school and expand that, including using the things that interest them. We should remember that learning is not merely intellectual, but experiential and emotional as well, and often the most important learning experiences will not be those in the official curriculum, but when a child finds something that connects with her life and experience.

    Posted by teacherken | August 30, 2010, 5:31 am
  4. i love this post Paula. i love the visual… of the spaces we could/should have.

    my kids have been talking about this the last couple of weeks… thinking – rather than schools- as we know them – structured in space and time, we have resource hubs.
    we just watched a video on the learning center in amsterdam and the making of palomar 5. an ever changing building.. and like you say – filled with the stuff that screams – play…

    another interesting topic we’ve been having instigated and developed – around homelessness…. (their words):
    we don’t say houselessness – so it’s not just without shelter.
    and we do say home is where the heart is.. so it’s more about where we belong.
    so some kids in some classes or in some schools are homeless.

    i think your ideas of spaces, Paula, would restore many homeless students.

    Posted by monika hardy | September 1, 2010, 1:11 am
    • Home is where the heart is.

      Our hearts connect with others and the feeling of belonging is one of those basic human needs. The way we do school devastates many kids each year in setting up classes and separating best friends. . . or in the case of many “outliers” the only kid they connect with. . . why do we do that to kids? Spaces and how they are set up DO restore-or negate- feelings of connectedness and I think you’re kids gett that and are quite eloquent about it, Monika.

      Thanks for your response…been thinking about it all day, as we’re about to add a third class in one grade, so we have to separate kids from 2 classes into 3 and that 3rd class will be on a different floor, way back in a corner, at the end of a hall, isolated from all other classrooms. Been thinking about that placement and hat it’ll mean to some kids. 🙂

      Posted by Paula White | September 1, 2010, 6:34 pm
  5. I love this post!

    I still think there needs to be a balance. Yes, let them redesign the curriculum and reconceptualize the school and the classroom. However, there is still a time and a place for some direct instruction, especially in one-on-one and small group learning. I’m realizing this in my own classroom. The students help plan the projects and have redesigned our classroom space (tables, learning centers, a mural that they are painting on the wall) and yet they also want structure and boundaries and some direct guidance at times.

    When they had a hard time with dividing fractions, I gave them the challenge of how many Legos could reach our ceiling. By the end, every child had contributed something and every child had learned how to divide fractions. However, when I asked them to develop a new challenge, it fell flat. Sometimes they need a little more direction.

    I’d like my classroom to be a museum and a playground and also a community where we fight for what we believe in together. I want us to write and perform plays and blog together and do documentaries and analyze “The Tell-tale Heart.” Sometimes it will look like a museum or a playground and sometimes, quite honestly, it will look like a classroom. I’m okay with that, too, as long as it’s real and it’s democratic and it’s a community.

    Posted by johntspencer | September 1, 2010, 9:09 am
    • I absolutely agree, John… balance is key–and that’s one reason I love Calder’s work–it gives such great opportunities to talk about balance and tipping points and imbalance and directions and swaying and changing and moving and being different from different viewpoints.

      The real and democratic and community–and direction– is every bit as important as museum and playground.

      Posted by Paula White | September 1, 2010, 12:16 pm
  6. This is beautiful, and brings up a lot. One question: in the US, why would we have allowed school spaces to become so unlovely, so intensely utilitarian and off-putting to anything that nurtures the soul? A metaphor for how we have regarded learning? Yes.

    Paula, many of the new school buildings in Melbourne, Australia are being constructed exactly as you suggest: as playgrounds, as galleries, as workshops for learning. Check this out.

    Their essential idea: the space we are in affect/reflects how we feel about the work we are doing in it. If it is generative, lovely, invitational, the work will mirror this. We want to be nurtured and stimulated by our spaces. As learners, we deserve this.

    I have thought of mini-eco-gardens as a metaphor for elementary school (to John’s point), and the public square and gallery as a metaphor for high school. Yet really, has there ever been anything more repulsive and contrary to learning than the large comprehensive high school building? Doesn’t your head just turn off and get oppositional walking in the door? Spitballs just seem to spring spontaneously from one’s mouth! Opportunities for detention are everywhere! Sign me up! Assistant Principal here I COME!

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 2, 2010, 11:51 am


  1. Pingback: JD's School of Thought » Daily Links #11 – 8/30/2010 - August 31, 2010

  2. Pingback: What Do We Often Forget? « Cooperative Catalyst - October 10, 2010

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,100 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: