Playing While at School

This fall, I have had the most invigorating educational experiences that I have had in recent memory. I will focus on two that exemplify playing while at school, which is a really motivating way for all (teachers and students) to learn and have led to enhancements and curricular modifications which I feel will enhance the students experience.


The first example occurred in October. The majority of our 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders had a wonderful opportunity to work with Jim Papoulis, creating and recording a song. Our Lower School head asked if I could come up with an activity that we could do with the remaining 16 4th and 5th graders on the morning that they went to the recording studio. Over the summer, because of postings on Alex Ragone and Arvind Grover’s podcast, 21st Century Learning (part of the EdTechTalk syndication), I was reacquainted (which I originally heard about from Fred Bartels) with Google’s Sketchup. I played with it and thought it was a neat application, especially when used with Google Earth to overlay the models. Since we had a three hour block to fill, I thought it would be neat to introduce the students and the three teachers who stayed back to the application to see what worked and what didn’t. I wanted the students to feel that they had as unique of an experience as the other group.
I began the day with a brief orientation, and then I asked the students and teachers to go through the tutorial for 40 minutes. It was interesting how encumbered the teachers were and the 4th and 5th graders were completely uninhibited. When faced with a task, the adults tried to duplicate it exactly. If it wasn’t exact, they went over it again and again. On the other hand, the students watched the instructions, tried to do it, and if not working, they would try to manipulate and figure out what more they could do. When it did work for the students, they then began to brainstorm and try to apply what they learned to do more.

When the teachers got stuck, a student would see this and walk over and sit down with them and try to show them not only how to accomplish the task, but how to apply some of the other aspects that they were playing with. After a break, we turned everyone loose to design a structure, or whatever they wanted to. Everyone was trying out different aspects of Sketchup, including colors and mapping textures. Everyone was learning from each other and the time flew by. At the end of our time together, when we debriefed with the teachers, they were excited by the possibilities and the fact that they were thrust back into the role of a learner and that they needed to be mentored by the students. For some of the students, it was a chance to shine and show wonderful leadership.

Sketchup Fall out

The next day, after returning from a Professional Development day, my 5th grader who went to the recording studio and was not part of the experience, asked me, “What other software do you know about that you are hiding from me?” Two of her friends who were part of the Sketchup experience showed her the models that they created after school. While I was gone, she downloaded and had several models to share with me when I got home.

Our 10th grade history teacher’s son was also a member of the Sketchup group. Over the weekend, he shared with his dad the program and how to model. They worked on them over the weekend. On Monday, he approached me to see if we could install the software so that his Interim group project, studying the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, could create their own renditions of some of the different buildings that they visited. They did so and showed them to their parents during their presentation night.

Lastly, our 5th Grade is breaking up into teams and using Sketchup to model five Mayan villages that they are going to research this January. We are going to be doing the overlays onto Google Earth for the parent presentation night in February. I can’t wait to see the results.


For the second year, I proposed and had a full compliment of students who participated in my film-making Interim Week experience. Over the course of the week, they developed the idea, script, shot, and edited their films. Interim Week is a week where classes are suspended and students sign up for a week long immersive experience of their choice. In the film-making interim, the students had five and a half full days to work on the project. I am in the midst of creating a wiki to document this year’s films shortly. Once again, when given the luxury of time to work on a project, students have the opportunity to truly play with the application. They were not trying to finish the project within discrete 50 minute blocks. During Interim Week, I am usually so exhausted at the end of the day, as you are always “on” and having to work together with students on troubleshooting, teaching, and critiquing their work so that they can learn better ways to tell their stories.

Film-making Fall Out

As a result of bringing back the film-making Interim after a five year hiatus, students exposed their teachers to the ease of creating film, especially with all of the digital tools that we have on hand. While having my individual goal setting meeting with the head of our history project, we got to talking about the conditions that made our integration of technology such an exciting and invigorating experience in 1996 – 2000, when I first arrived on campus. One aspect that we both agreed we needed to get back to was sharing our work with the outside world, since the tools seemed to catch up with what our desires were. He also had done a documentary film Interim three years ago with me. From this conversation, he came back after the summer with the exciting news that he was introducing new units in his US History course, which will culminate in a documentary film unit. Over the course of the fall, we have collaborated on several units, which are taking the students through the steps of gaining more visual literacy and story telling techniques. Tomorrow, we are introducing the students to a five week unit which you can view at the wiki I have created for the students, thanks to the inspiration that I received from the k12 Online Conference, especially the wiki workshop led by Vicki Davis.


When given a chance to learn about new technologies without being concerned with time, wonderful ideas percolate in our minds. This is one of the joys that children experience while playing. They can stay engaged without concern for anything else. I am thankful for the opportunities to schedule playdates, bigger bits of time that teachers and students can use to explore. It is from this experience that great ideas are born.

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One thought on “Playing While at School

  1. Hi Vinny,

    Happy to hear you are making use of SketchUp. Are those your Mayan models that have been appearing in the 3-D Warehouse?

    I’ve enjoyed reading through your posts and added a link to your blog on the School Computing Wiki.

    Best wishes for the new year.


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