Creative Classrooms

Educating kids for a future we can't yet conceive calls for thinking outside the box. These elementary schools are reimagining everything from lesson plans to playground design. In each case, the goal is to establish a culture where creativity comes first.

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Kids carrying boat

Kettle Falls Elementary

Kettle Falls Elementary in Kettle Falls, Washington

This past spring, when second-graders at Kettle Falls cleaned out the wood duck-nesting boxes they had built earlier in the year, the messy, smelly task revealed a mystery to solve: Too many of the eggs had failed to hatch. "The students' next job was to find an answer that they couldn't read about in a textbook," says the school's principal, Val McKern. "Was it the weather? Did the hens need more protection? They felt like wildlife biologists trying to figure it out." Based on the available evidence, the kids concluded that predators had played the largest role in the baby ducks' demise.

Kettle Falls is one of 160 schools in the U.S. that use the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, which was developed by experts from Outward Bound and Harvard University. Each grade embarks on several major explorations with the goal of promoting critical thinking and creative problem solving. They start with a guiding question that usually has a local connection, such as "How does the weather in our area change over time?" or "What factors does it take for a business to be successful in Kettle Falls?"

The students perform fieldwork and record data to analyze later in the classroom. They also learn from visiting experts. When fourth-graders study forest management, they hear from conservationists as well as timber workers. "This approach makes them consider multiple perspectives on an issue," says McKern.

Collaboration is an integral part of the learning process. Desks are arranged in groups rather than rows, and instead of focusing on the "right" answer, teachers help kids generate lots of ideas so they can discuss them and learn from each other. "Not knowing exactly where every lesson is going to end up can be tricky for teachers, but the opportunity to be creative is our overall goal for students," says Tony Altucher, an EL school designer.

Learn more! Locate an Expeditionary Learning program near you -- or find out how to bring one to your child's current school -- at

Reconceiving Recess

Child on playground

Forest View Elementary

Forest View Elementary in Durham, North Carolina

Show a child a jungle gym, and she'll play for a while. Give her a pile of raw materials, and she'll be creative for life. That's the concept behind the newest addition to Forest View's playground. The PlayPod may look like an ordinary metal storage shed, but it holds a world of wonder inside. When teachers haul out the plastic storage tubs, students dive in as if the containers were filled with precious gems rather than giant cardboard tubes, pieces of PVC pipe, old keyboards, yards of fabric, wheels, and lots of other scrap items once destined for the landfill.

What are children supposed to do with this rotating collection of stuff? Anything they like. "At first, they used the items very literally," says Lora DeWalt, a Forest View fifth-grade teacher. "A broken calculator was just a pretend calculator. Now they're using it as a code device to get through a secret door. Their creativity is expanding." The kids are also learning that ingenuity takes persistence. They may be disappointed when their grand architectural plans can't be accomplished in a single 30-minute period. "But then there's the excitement of thinking, 'Tomorrow we're going to try it a different way, and we're going to make it work,'" says DeWalt.

The PlayPod concept was imported from the U.K., where a nonprofit called the Children's Scrapstore dreamed it up with input from British parents as a way to promote innovative play in school yards. Forest View is the first American school to install it, aided by a $13,000 grant from Be Active Kids (a signature program of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation) for materials and training. Some teachers were skeptical about turning kids loose with what seemed like a load of junk. "But once they saw the excitement this program generates, they embraced it," says Linda Tugurian, a science and technology teacher at Forest View. "Schools spend a lot of time trying to get kids to conform. The PlayPod is an opportunity for children to use their imagination and create something different."

Learn more! Check out the Scrapstore PlayPod website,, or

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