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Playground Design

Playground Design

Unit Summary

In this unit, elementary students learn to take an active role in their school community. They apply creativity and problem-solving skills to evaluate conditions and opinions, prioritize wants and needs, make decisions, and apply math concepts to create a new, safe, and enjoyable playground for everyone on their campus. Ultimately they learn how to communicate and persuade others - making sure their voice is heard.

Curriculum-Framing Questions

  • Essential Question
    How can our voice be heard?
  • Unit Questions
    How can we use math to communicate and persuade others?
    How do we design a playground that is safe and enjoyable for everyone?
  • Sample Content Questions
    How do we make a map to scale?
    How do we collect and display data?
    In what ways can we participate in our community?

Assessment Processes

View how a variety of student-centered assessments are used in the Playground Design Unit Plan. These assessments help students and teachers set goals; monitor student progress; provide feedback; assess thinking, processes, performances, products; and reflect on learning throughout the learning cycle.

Instructional Procedures

Prior to Instruction

Examine the Visual Ranking Tool as you plan instruction to learn about the tool and how to use it with your students.

Setting the Stage

Introduce the Essential Question, How can our voice be heard?

Ask students to recall a specific situation when they felt like their voice was not heard. Have students briefly jot down what they would have liked to have communicated in this situation and why they felt their voice was not heard.

Then, post a chart with the following headings:

I shared my thoughts or opinions, but no one seemed to listen

Others made decisions for me without asking me what I thought or wanted

Help students to recognize that making your voice heard requires both speaking up for yourself and getting others to really listen. Ask students to decide which heading most accurately describes their situation. Then, take a quick poll of hands and record the results on the chart. You may want to Introduce the Content Question, How do we collect and display data? at this point in order to demonstrate how simply and quickly data can be collected (a show of hands) and displayed (a value recorded next to a corresponding heading on a chart. Finally, ask for volunteers to elaborate and share their experiences with the class.

Explain to students that in this unit, they will be given an opportunity to make their voice heard.

Present the following scenario:

The school board is unhappy with the safety and overall use of the current playground. They would like the playground upgraded so that it will be safely used by all the students in the school. In order to ensure this goal, they would like your input on the design of the new playground. You will research the opinions of students and personnel in your school, design a bird’s eye view of your new playground, and then present it to the school board.

Evaluating Playground Safety and Desirability

Introduce the Unit Question: How do we design a playground that is safe and enjoyable for everyone?

Have students use prior knowledge and past playground experiences to brainstorm a list of items that they believe should be included in the new playground design.

Record all responses. Once you have an extensive list, revisit the Unit Question: How do we design a playground that is safe and enjoyable for everyone? This time, focus students’ attention on the word safe.

Review playground safety requirements. Obtain a list from your school board or refer to the safety tips from the National Program for Playground Safety*. Explain to students that when building a playground for children, safety is always a primary concern. After students have had a chance to review safety considerations, divide the class into small groups. Tell students that their task is to review the class list that they generated in the earlier brainstorming activity, this time focusing only on safety, and that they must decide as a team which items from the list should be removed because they pose a safety risk. Allow plenty of time for student teams to discuss, evaluate, and make decisions about which items they now believe should be eliminated from the list. Do a quick check-in with each team to ensure on-task behavior, that all team members are having their voices heard, and that they are using a variety of problem-solving skills to help narrow the original list. Ask additional probing questions if needed.

Once teams have had time to finalize their list of items to eliminate, bring the class back together. Make sure each team has a chance to share their list and the reasons why they believe that these items are enough of a safety concern that they should be removed. Place a tally mark next to each item every time it is identified by a team as being potentially unsafe.

After each team has had a chance to share, tally up the marks next to each item. Ask students to consider how this data can be used to help the class come to consensus on which items should be deleted from the original list. Allow time for discussion, negotiation, and decision making. Finally, edit the brainstorming list. Cross out or remove the items that everyone agreed should be eliminated because of possible safety issues.

Post the Unit Question: How can we use math to communicate and persuade others? Tell students that they will be exploring this question throughout the entire unit. Then, ask students to consider how the simple mathematical data they collected in the previous activity (number of tallies) was used to communicate or persuade. Allow think time. Then, have students respond to the prompt in their math journals. Spot check journals to ensure students are making the connection and are beginning to understand how math can be used to communicate and persuade.

Sample journal response:

The skateboard half pike that we thought would be fun to have, got six tallies, which tells us that every team thought it was unsafe and should be removed from the list. This data is really persuasive because it shows us that 100% of us agreed the item was unsafe and that we should remove it from our list.

To wrap up this activity, have a few volunteers share their journal responses with the whole group.

Examining Current Playground Design

The following day, break students into small groups and distribute tape measures. Tell students that before they begin planning the new and improved playground they need to examine and evaluate the current one. Walk students out to the playground. Have them draw a quick sketch of the playground area, making sure to include all equipment, structures, and other items that currently exist. Then have them measure the perimeter of the playground, as well as the length, width and height of large items such as basketball courts, picnic tables and play structures. Have students record measurements next to or directly on the corresponding item on their sketches. Then have students evaluate the current safety conditions of the playground. Tell students to look for things that need to be replaced or changed in order to create a playground that is safe for everyone. Have them note this information on their sketches as well.

Back in the classroom discuss students’ concerns associated with the current playground and seek creative solutions to each problem. Use a T-chart to help students visually organize their thoughts. For example:

Playground Design

Continue to list as many safety concerns and possible solutions. Keep this chart posted as you move on to the next activity.

Review student sketches of the current playground to ensure they understand how to depict items from a bird’s eye view and that they are accurately measuring the perimeter, length, and width of playground items. Use this information to determine where or if you need to modify instruction.

Creating a Visual Ranking List

Post the latest version of the class’ brainstorming list and revisit the Unit Question: How do we design a playground that is safe and enjoyable for everyone?

Tell students that in order to narrow the list they must decide which items are most important to achieving a playground that is safe and enjoyable for everyone. Distribute three different colored sticky dots to each student. Explain that each color represents a different value. For example red = three, yellow = two, blue = one. Post the values on the board for everyone to see. Then, ask students to place the red dot (or the dot with the highest value) next to the element they consider the most important, yellow-next to the second most important, and blue-next to the third most important. Remind students to consider safety and available space as they rank the items. Once every student has had a chance to mark their top three items, have students count the dots and tally the points.

Reintroduce the Content Question: How do we collect and display data? Ask students to reflect back on the activity and then respond to the question in their math journals.

Sample journal response:

We can collect and display data in many ways. Today we used different colored sticky dots to collect data. Each dot had a different value and we had to place the dot with the highest value next to the item we thought was most important and so on. When we were finished it was easy to see the results. The items that had a lot of red dots (worth three points) were valued the most. The items that had no dots, only a few dots, or yellow dots (worth one point) were not as important.

To wrap up this activity, have a few volunteers share their journal responses with the whole group.

Using Visual Ranking to Prioritize Desirable Playground Elements

Before proceeding with the next activity, click here to set up the Designing a School Playground project in your workspace.

Introduce the Visual Ranking Tool using the demonstration space at Try the Tool. Show students how to rank and compare lists, and how to describe items and explain their reasoning using the comments feature.

Divide the class into teams of two to three students. Have students log in to their Visual Ranking team space. Together, review the prompts for this project:

  • How do you create a playground that is safe and enjoyable for everyone? Rank the following items from most to least essential in achieving a playground that meets this goal.
  • Why have you chosen to rank the elements in this order?

Then, have each student team rank the items from most desirable to least, and explain their reasoning for each item by using the comments feature of the tool. As students sort their lists, listen to their discussions and ask questions to help teams negotiate, make choices, and express their thinking.

Once teams have completed their ranking, have them click the "Compare" button, in order to compare and contrast their rankings with their classmates' results. Have students discuss how their lists are similar and different. Suggest that they identify the teams that ranked items most and least like they did. Have similar and dissimilar teams meet to discuss their rankings and rationale behind the order. Afterwards, lead a class discussion about the different reasons teams used to rank their lists. Review each team’s list to clarify any misconceptions and questions that have arisen and give feedback to the students using the comment feature within the tool. Have the teams return to the tool, read the comments, and decide if they’d like to change their original order. If they do decide to change their order, remind them to include reasoning for doing so.

Examining the Visual Ranking Activity

In the Visual Ranking space, you can roll over the white icon to see the team's comments and click the compare button to see how different teams ranked the items.   

Project Name: Designing a School Playground (Click here to set up this project in your workspace)
Question: How do we create a playground that is safe and enjoyable for everyone? Rank the following items from most to least essential in achieving a playground that meets this goal.

Explore an interactive demo.

Playground Design


Revisiting the Visual Ranking Tool

Tell students that because the goal is to design a playground that is safe and enjoyable for everyone, it might be a good idea to find out how other classes and faculty members would prioritize the same playground elements. Discuss the benefits of gathering data from a wider sampling and have students project how older students, younger students, and faculty members might rank the items. Invite faculty members and students from other classes to use the tool to prioritize the same list of playground elements. Make certain to provide them with a due date for completing the ranking and add and assign them to a new team in the project space.

Have students revisit Visual Ranking once those you have invited to participate have completed their rankings.

Instruct student teams to click the "Compare" button, in order to compare and contrast their rankings with the new teams. Have students discuss how their lists are similar and different. Suggest that they identify the teams that ranked items most and least like they did. Afterwards, lead a class discussion about the different reasons teams used to rank their lists.

Finally, tell the class that they need to come to consensus as to how the list should be ordered based on the opinions of all the teams. Discuss ways to arrive at consensus. Then, lead students into a discussion about how the ranked lists can translate mathematically into data that can be tabulated; much like the earlier sticky dot activity. One way to do this is to assign a point value 1 through 10 to the items on each list. Top ranked items receive 10 points and the lowest ranked items receive 1 point. Have students teams tally total points and display the data in a bar graph. Next, instruct teams to analyze this information to determine a final ranking order. Afterwards, compare the results. If students correctly tabulated the points and represented the data accurately in their graphs, each team should have arrived at the same final list. Using this example (how math helped the class to come to consensus) to demonstrate how persuasive math can be.

Collect and review bar graphs to assess student understanding and modify instruction as needed.

Polling Classmates and School Faculty

After coming to consensus on the final playground list, tell students that they are going to poll their schoolmates and the faculty to determine whether or not the list truly represents the priorities of the entire school population. Revisit the Content Question, How do we collect and display data? This time focus on the word collect. Discuss how polls are used to collect data. Together brainstorm a list of questions to be included in the poll. Once the polling questions have been established and students are clear about the task, send them out to collect the data they need to determine the needs and wants of the school body. Remind students how important it is to collect and record data accurately.

Once students have completed the polling process, have them tabulate the data they collected and display it in a bar graph. Then, have students analyze and draw conclusions about the data to determine what else they may need to include in their playground design that they had not already considered.

To wrap up the activity and check students’ current understanding and ability to synthesize new information in order to answer the Curriculum-Framing Questions, ask them to respond to the following prompts in their math journals:

  • How do we collect and record data?
  • What did the mathematical data you collected communicate to you and did it persuade you to include an item you hadn’t previously considered?

Review journal responses and student bar graphs to gauge student understanding and modify instruction as needed.

Designing the Playground

After completing the final Visual Ranking and polling activities, student teams are ready to begin designing their own playgrounds. Revisit the final prioritized list of playground elements which includes the opinions of all teams (classmates, schoolmates, and faculty). Remind students that their ultimate goal is to design a playground that is safe and enjoyable for everyone. Allow time for student teams to plan, sketch, assess, and modify an original playground design that incorporates the highest prioritized elements from the final Visual Ranking list and their poll.

Mapping out the Playground

To gauge students’ prior knowledge about mapping and scale, ask them to respond to the Content Question, How do you make a map to scale? From their responses, determine how much guided practice you will need to provide and what additional concepts you will need to address through direct instruction.

Explain to students that in this activity they will be transforming their quick sketch (created in the previous activity) into a bird’s eye view map that is done to scale. First, complete a guided practice where together you create a bird’s eye view of the classroom. Using an overhead projector, place a one-by-one inch graph paper transparency on the glass. Explain to students that each 1 inch square on the graph paper is equal to one square foot. Measure the perimeter of your classroom using a tape measure. Use a colored marker on the overhead to indicate the classroom walls and display actual classroom area. Stress the importance of scale and accuracy when designing within a confined space. Tell students that if a spatial map is to be at all useful, all items on the map, as well as the space between them, must be proportionately represented. Use the following example to demonstrate what can happen when scale is not properly applied. Tell students that you would like to reposition the furniture in the classroom but before you go to the effort to moving everything around, you want to make sure everything will fit and function well in its new place. Create 30 small 1 inch colored or opaque squares to represent student desks. Line them up into six rows of five (each desk fills one square of the graph paper and an empty square is left between each desk). Once the desks are laid out on the paper, ask student to determine the amount of space need for this arrangement. Have them write their answer on a slip of paper. Most students will assume the scale is correct and come up with 13 feet by 9 feet.

Use a tape measure and masking tape to mark out a 13 by 9 foot area on the classroom floor. Have students discuss whether or not they think they can fit 30 desks comfortably within this area.

(Note: The student desks were deliberately created significantly smaller than scale to illustrate the next point.)

Show how in this scenario it appears that you can comfortably fit 30 desks (six rows of five) within the allotted space, when in reality you can not. Help student to draw the conclusion that the desks were misrepresented on the graph paper and that they were not created to scale. Together measure the desks and determine how much space it would have actually taken to organize the desks into six rows of five-making sure to leave a foot between desks. After modeling this scenario, guide practice as you map out the classroom together. Make certain to measure the other furniture and big items in the classroom, determine which geometric shape should be used for each, and then map them to scale.

After modeling the process for mapping to scale, tell student teams to create a scaled map of their proposed playground. Remind students that they already collected many of the measurements they will need to create this map during the Examining Current Playground Design activity, such as the perimeter of the playground area, and length and width of a basketball court. Instruct students to use the Internet or catalogues to research and gather the additional measurements they may require in order to ensure proper scale of all playground elements.

Pass out the student checklist. Together, read through each of the mapping requirements and discuss them in more detail to ensure students understand project expectations. Discuss how the checklist can be used before, during, and after the creation process.

Remind students to:

  • Map to scale
  • Consider safety when doing spatial planning
  • Choose geometric shapes to represent playground elements
  • Label each item on the map
  • Include a map key

Distribute graph paper, colored paper, scissors, and glue and allow plenty of time for teams to create accurate and detailed maps.

Developing Playground Design Presentations

Once the maps are complete, tell students that their final task is to persuade the school board and other school and district decision makers that the playground they have planned for their campus is safe and will be enjoyable for everyone. Tell students that this an opportunity for them to actively participate in their school community and make their voice heard. Revisit the Unit Question: How can we use math to communicate and persuade others? Remind students how important mathematical data can be when trying to communicate and persuade others.

Distribute the final project rubric and student checklist. Read through both documents together. Where appropriate, provide additional details, examples, and address questions and concerns to ensure students understand project expectations and how their work is to be evaluated.

Using Math to Communicate and Persuade

Invite representatives of the school board, parents, and office staff to attend the day of the slideshow presentations. Request that representatives give feedback to students about their new playground designs.

Following each presentation, have the audience rate the effectiveness of the presenters’ ability to use math to communicate and persuade others. Finally, use the project rubric to formally assess student presentations.


Review the following Curriculum-Framing Questions:

  • In what ways can we participate in our community?
  • How can we use math to communicate and persuade others?
  • How can our voice be heard?

Ask students to reflect on the overall experience of actively participating in their school community. Then help them to draw connections by asking the question: How did participating in your community affect your ability to make your voice heard?

Next, have students discuss the decision-making processes they went through to develop their playground design. Follow up with How did this process help you to share your voice?

Have students use the self-reflection form to record their overall impressions of the unit’s activities, and note key learnings.

Prerequisite Skills

  • Basic geometry
  • Basic measurement
  • Familiarity with multimedia presentation software

Differentiated Instruction

Resource Student

  • Make modifications as dictated in the student’s IEP.
  • Provide visual aids and examples (documents, visuals and examples from this Unit Plan can be helpful).
  • Supply an outline of the tasks and timeline for the final project (including milestones).
  • Select the team best suited to work with this student.
  • Provide extra time as needed to complete individual assignments.

Gifted Student

  • Ask students to research alternative types of materials used for playground structures.
  • Encourage students to write a proposal to the school board to change the playground design.
  • Allow students to build a 3-D representation of their playground design using proportional measurements to an actual structure.

English Language Learner

  • Provide visual aids and examples (documents, visuals, and examples from this Unit Plan can be helpful).
  • Try to include examples of playgrounds from student’s native culture in an effort to link the unit to student’s prior knowledge and experiences.


A teacher contributed this idea for a classroom project. A team of educators expanded the plan into the example you see here.

Playground Design

At a Glance

Grade Level: 3-5

Subjects: Mathematics, Social Studies

Topics: Measurement, Geometry, Community, Safety

Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Decision making, Evaluating, Creativity

Key Learnings: Spatial Reasoning, Geometric Modeling, Community Involvement

Time Needed: Fifteen, 45 minute lessons