The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA

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Advanced 3D Design Reimagines Play

How does it feel to dangle upside down as the blood rushes to your head or to spin and spin until you can't walk a straight line? Do you recall flying so high on the swings that your feet were framed against the sky? These are the memories that ninth graders in Advanced 3D Design were reconnecting to as they researched and designed a piece of playground equipment for Fay's Primary and Lower School students this fall.

"We kept the design brief for this project quite short," says Director of Creativity & Design David Dixon, "and that required them to go through some thoughtful and deep research about the meaning of play and its value to a child's development." David kicked off the research phase of the project by inviting playground consultant Margie Salt of Park Street Playgrounds to talk to his class about the essential elements of playground design. She discussed the materials used in playground construction as well as the benefits of promoting outdoor play. She noted that a good playground design incorporates the seven elements of play: swinging, sliding, brachiating (features like monkey bars that mimic swinging from branch to branch), balancing, climbing, spinning, and sensory play. Next, students worked in small groups to explore playground equipment from around the world. Each group created a Google slideshow featuring structures from China, Denmark, and Australia, among others. They looked at the purpose that each structure served and how the country's culture influenced the design. Students also spent time researching suitable playground locations on the Fay campus and outlining the potential drawbacks and advantages to each site. Students also explored the work of sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who also designed playgrounds and public parks.

Before students were ready to start designing, they needed to (re)connect to the perspective of their customer, a younger version of themselves! David asked his students to watch several YouTube videos of children enjoying free play. Then he asked them to connect to that experience and write a sensory poem, of 10 lines or less, about play from the perspective of a child. In his poem, "So Much Fun." ninth grader Joseph Sun wrote: 

Salty sweat dripping, 
Squeaking swings
Scent of autumn in the air
Someone hanging mid-air, like a wild monkey in the jungle.

 The exercise was valuable in helping students connect to those childhood memories of play, says David. "They got absorbed in those memories and wrote these beautiful, incredibly personal poems that involved their parents or recent memories in some ways that were surprising to me. With very little stimulus, they came up with such beautiful work!"

Usually, students start by sketching their designs, but David felt that the pressure to translate elaborate ideas into detailed renderings would be an intimidating way to begin. So for this project, he flipped the usual process around, and students began by modeling their design. Using cups, sticks, straws, felt, roping, flexible plastic, and a variety of other materials, students gave form to their ideas paying close attention to scale, anthropometrics, and ergonomics. Then they took photos of the models, scanned them, and printed them onto a piece of paper. Using lightboxes, they traced over the designs to create a scaled rendering of their design. This technique allowed them to "have the confidence to draw their design, as well as the confidence to adapt it and add their design thoughts," notes David. 

Once the designs were complete, the class presented their work in a gallery walk to faculty members as well as Margie Salt, who returned to Fay to view the student's work. Students incorporated all the feedback they received, as well as their reflections on the project into a final write-up. "They had to explain where the pressure points were in the project and include recommendations for improvement and constructive feedback from faculty and Mrs. Salt," says David. 

As the project was wrapping up, David received a note from Margie Salt sharing her perspective on working with Fay's Advanced 3D Design Students. "These students are amazing, with strong self-confidence, self-esteem, and fantastic communication skills...The scope of skills used and obtained through this project was impressive. Statements, drawings, justifications, measurements, models, and research all shone throughout their presentations...What valuable skills they have obtained from a simple lesson on play!"