Academic journal article Science and Children

Printing the Playground: Early Childhood Students Design a Piece of Playground Equipment Using 3-D Printing Technology

Academic journal article Science and Children

Printing the Playground: Early Childhood Students Design a Piece of Playground Equipment Using 3-D Printing Technology

Article excerpt

With grant funds in play, teachers at Prescott South Elementary School in Cookeville, Tennessee, were looking for innovative ways to engage students in new and exciting STEM experiences. One outcome was the purchase of a MakerBot 3-D printer. The printer provided opportunities for previously inconceivable projects. Teachers submitted ideas about ways to interest students in 3-D modeling processes while meeting standards and school objectives. The school STEM advisory committee posed a vision that challenged both teachers and students: Kindergarten and first-grade students were charged with designing new playground equipment to create a solution to a problem: The school playground was in need of additional equipment. Students jumped at the opportunity to solve an issue they were dealing with daily.

This project would engage students in Science and Engineering Practices as described in the Next Generation Science Standards (see "Connecting to the Standards," p. 47). Several tech-savvy teachers (and two middle school students) were trained to use the printer and 3-D modeling programs such as SketchUp--chosen as the primary implementation software due to its ease of use and free access for educators. In turn, they became facilitators and troubleshooters for student learning projects.

The playground project began with a week of interdisciplinary planning by teachers across the K-l classes, followed by the weeklong implementation. For the culminating project, students presented the principal with a 3-D printed model of the playground equipment selected from their designs. In turn, the principal ordered the equipment for the school. Throughout the authentic learning experience, the students engaged in Science and Engineering Practices: They asked questions and defined problems, developed and used models, planned and carried out investigations, and constructed explanations and designed solutions. The interdisciplinary project incorporated literacy, science, math, and physical education. In addition, throughout the unit, teachers reported an increased level of engagement.

It is important to note that although this engineering design challenge culminated with the use of a 3-D printer, the process is still valuable for students who do not have access to this technology. If the support structure for 3-D printing is not in place in the school district, then local universities and 3-D printer companies are other possible resources for providing training and support. For this project the 3-D printer was obtained through a STEM grant, but could be purchased through a variety of sources. The school PTO,, and are all reasonable avenues for funding a 3-D printer (see Internet Resources). Collaboration with local businesses and universities could provide opportunities for 3-D printing as well. A business or university with a 3-D printer could easily receive the file and print the object for the school. Video conferencing could even be used to allow students to view the process and speak to the operator as the process is happening. 3-D printing software is rapidly evolving and making improvements. Based on the experiences of the local school and university discussed in this article, companies are generally very responsive to requests for assistance and are eager to expand their uses for implementation in the K--12 setting. The 5E Model, developed by BSCS (Bybee et al. 2006), was one of the foundational approaches for the project.


In order to generate excitement about the project, the principal wrote a letter to the kindergarten and first-grade classes requesting their help to design new playground equipment for their school. After this introduction, the students were shown videos, pictures, and examples of children on various types of playground equipment to help them brainstorm ideas. First individually, and then in small groups, students journaled about specific equipment and activities they desired. …

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