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.

Free to Explore

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 elschools.org.

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, playpods.co.uk, or beactivekids.org.

More Creative Classrooms

All Kinds of Minds

Child cooking

Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy

Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy in Gainesville, Georgia

"It's not how smart you are; it's how you're smart." That's the motto at Enota, a public charter school that is based on the theory of multiple intelligences (MI), as theorized by Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, Ph.D. The teachers stress that kids can be word smart, math/logic smart, picture smart, music smart, body smart, nature smart, people smart, and self smart, depending on how they process information best.

Students are exposed to different modes of solving problems. If a child is working on addition, for instance, he can pick from a "choice board" that lists various activities (such as manipulating objects, singing, or drawing) to practice that particular skill. Helping kids identify their individual strengths not only enhances their performance in the classroom but encourages innovative thinking.

"When they feel competent, it gives them the confidence to be daring in other areas," says Rebecca Ann Goebel, a creative-movement and musical-theater teacher at Enota. Since nurturing intense interests helps spur ingenious ideas, the school lets third- through fifth-graders explore their passion -- whether it's ballet, robotics, choir, or the history of baseball -- in greater depth.

At the annual MI Fair, students display work they've done in class as well as their after-hours projects. "They can't wait to show off to their parents," says Matt Maynor, Ed.D., the school's principal. "They really get creative, because they're so excited about what they're studying."

Learn more! Visit howardgardner.com for the FAQs about MI, or ascd.org, a nonprofit association of educators, for articles, videos, and books on the subject.

High Marks for Imagination

Children on playground

Alice Birney Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School

Alice Birney Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School in Sacramento, California

To get a sense of Alice Birney's guiding philosophy, check out this typical kindergarten activity: The teacher recites a fairy tale from memory at storytime, never once holding up a picture book. Afterward, the students paint a watercolor image from the tale. "That way, the kids have to call on their creativity to think, 'How big are the three bears? What does Goldilocks look like?' " explains Mechelle Horning, the school's principal.

Leaving as much as possible to a child's imagination is a central tenet of Waldorf-style education, which also emphasizes hands-on, play-based learning. Alice Birney, the nation's first public, non-charter school to follow this teaching philosophy, is so popular that the Sacramento school district is now converting a second elementary school to the method.

School days are designed to engage the whole child: "head, heart, hands," as the Waldorf saying goes. Artistic activities like folk dancing, singing, gardening, and woodworking are a major part of Alice Birney's curriculum. Every kindergartner learns to knit; first-graders learn Spanish; and fourth-graders choose a stringed instrument (violin, viola, or cello) to study. "All of the specialties are there for a purpose," says Horning, who notes that stitching strengthens young kids' fine motor skills and helps build their number sense. Mastering such tasks also gives children the confidence to think creatively.

There is a short-term cost: Since Alice Birney doesn't teach to the test, its statewide exam scores are notably low in second grade. However, faith in the approach pays off in the long term. "Our eighth-graders consistently score just under 90 percent proficient or advanced, which is significantly higher than most schools," says Horning, who credits inventive play during the early years with developing higher-level thinking skills later on. Middle-schoolers also graduate knowing how to play an instrument, grow their own vegetables, build a shelter, and salsa dance. "Perhaps they'll use those skills again and maybe they won't, but their minds have been opened up in a way we can't measure on a standardized test," Horning says.

Learn more! Find a Waldorf-inspired school, or get help starting one, at allianceforpublicwaldorfeducation.org.

The Fine Art of Learning

Children playing musical instruments

Marshall Elementary

Marshall Elementary in Tuscon, Arizona

Ask the average 6-year-old how much she knows about arias, and you're likely to evoke a blank stare. Talk to one at Marshall Elementary, and you'll get an earful. First-graders here not only have lessons with professional tenors and sopranos, but they also create their own operas, including lyrics, melodies, costumes, and props.

In their interpretation of "The Princess and the Pea" last spring, the setting was a pretend place called Candy Land, and a jawbreaker replaced the pea.

Opera is merely one component of Opening Minds through the Arts (OMA), a program that has been implemented in 15 Tucson schools, with 40 more to come. At Marshall, members of the Arizona Opera Company, Tucson Symphony Orchestra, and the University of Arizona schools of music and dance lead twice weekly classes, collaborating with the school?s teachers to ensure that their lessons complement the curriculum. When first-graders work with singers, they're building reading and writing skills. And dance instructors use music and movement to help second-graders grasp mathematical concepts such as fractions.

Independent research has found that children who attend OMA schools have higher scores in reading, language, and math than those who don't. The reason is clear to Andrew R. Kent, Marshall?s principal. "Visit our classrooms, and you'll see the power that arts integration has to motivate students and bring subjects to life," he says.

OMA began in 1999 with funding from a local patron of the arts. Since then it has received federal grants totaling $7 million and sustained itself, despite challenging budgets, through the use of a community tax credit. While the higher test scores are ample justification to keep the program going, its fundamental purpose is to stimulate new ways of thinking. "The idea is to give the children opportunities to nurture their creativity now so that it can serve them throughout their lifetime," says Kent.

Learn more! Read about OMA, which consults with other districts about replicating its program, at tusd1.org/oma.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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