Accessible Playground Design: A Community-Connected Elementary Engineering Unit Focused on Designing Accessible Playground Equipment


In the ConnecTions in the Making project, researchers and district partners work to develop and study community-connected, integrated science and engineering curriculum units that support diverse elementary students’ science and engineering ideas, practices, and attitudes. In the community-connected units, students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades use human-centered design strategies to prototype and share functional solutions to a design challenge rooted in the students’ local community while scientifically exploring the phenomena and mechanisms related to the challenge.

One of the units is “Accessible Playground Design,” a grade three unit that engages students in designing a piece of accessible playground equipment. It comprises 10 lessons, approximately 1 hour each, including a launch lesson, followed by four inquiry and four engineering design lessons, and a final design exposition.

In the launch lesson, students learn about the engineering challenge: to design one piece of accessible playground equipment. They are introduced to the ideas of “accessibility” and “inclusion” leading into a discussion that establishes the need to have accessible playgrounds to ensure that ALL children in their community can play together. Students also see the need to know how to make things move, stop and slow down, to be able to engineer a design, establishing a reason to delve into inquiry lessons.

During inquiry lessons, students first explore the concepts of force and motion, followed by magnetism. Students engage in multiple hands-on activities that provide for observations leading into rich discussions around the central concepts. Each of the inquiry lessons is tied to the design challenge either through carefully crafted facilitation or the framing of the essential questions.

During design lessons, students are engaged in planning, building, testing, and iterating their designs prototypes of an accessible playground equipment, to meet the identified set of design requirements. To build, students can choose from a variety of materials like cardboard, strings, playdough, springs, magnets, etc. Along with the bulk of the time reserved for building and testing, explicit peer feedback sessions are scaffolded into the plans where students can discuss their ideas and challenges. The aim of these sessions is not only to critique each other’s design but also help solve problems. Students also document their ideas, tests, iterations, challenges and the final design.

At the final Design Expo, students share their designs and design process with other students and members of the school and greater community.

While the unit was designed to build on the grade 3 engineering and physical sciences standards, it also functions as a stand-alone integrated science and engineering unit for grades 2-5. While the framing and context for the launch lesson as written, connects to a current engineering problem in [blinded], it could be easily aligned with any community’s general requirements. Alternatively, examples of similar types of problems common to many communities are also provided.

At the exchange, we will provide full documentation of the design challenge, links to the accompanying lessons and examples of student solutions.


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T.S. Dalvi
K.B. Wendell
C. Andrews
N. Alexandra Batrouny
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Physics and astronomy