Remove yourself from this moment and return to the time when you were nine years old, full of hope and wonder. Visit your favorite playground; maybe it is the school yard, the neighborhood park, an empty wooded lot or Grandma’s garden.

What do you hear? What does your playground sound like?

Little voices are calling and laughing inrhythm and rhyme, the cadence of children. Birds are sharing news in a song from telephone wire to tree.  A slight breeze rustles leaves overhead, creating a dance of sunlight and shade across the green grass. Small feet scurry and scoot over crushed stone as children wander down a garden path. Sneakers squeak; a ball bounces and a score is followed by cheers and groans. There are squeals of laughter. “Oh, oh, come look what I found,” your friend calls in a voice full of discovery and wonder. It sounds quiet and peaceful. It sounds busy. It sounds fun.

SHP Outdoor Learning | What does your playground sound like

For the first and fourth graders at Rockwern Academy a playground should simultaneously be full of sounds and silence. My colleague, John Noble, and I sat down with these students to plan their new playground, and here’s what they told us their playground sounds like.

Imagination is More Important than Knowledge

Children have the most wonderful imaginations. It is apparent in the way they approach the world around them, make sense of new information and ask questions. Through play, they formulate and organize, figure and suppose what the world is and their place in it. They have boundless curiosity, the biggest dreams.

When building outdoor learning spaces – and let’s face it, even on a traditional playground, a child learns from their environment – getting input from the children themselves is a critical element. John and I spent two days at Rockwern, immersed in the community, asking questions of faculty and staff.

But the most fun we had was “interviewing” first and fourth graders.

Sitting and chatting with the students at Rockwern Academy – a pre-K to eighth grade, Jewish community school – from within their worlds was a great pleasure. More importantly, it outlined the story of playground for the school’s Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC). To dream, draw and build a framework for this story of wonder and fun, to help these children’s ideas become real in the world is the best work of all. 

The Five Senses and Playground Design

We use our five senses to process information, make sense of the world around us and most importantly, learn. Well-crafted playgrounds and outdoor learning spaces very often make use of the senses as fundamental starting point, which is why I always ask students to tell me what their playground feels, tastes, smells, looks and sounds like.

The answers I get back from the kids can range from sweet to downright hilarious to uniquely wise. Usually, I like them to answer in one word, to keep it simple.  Often a single word can spark a flurry of additional details from classmates. I collect these little nuggets of wisdom and play them back regularly throughout the design process. The results are fascinating. Children rarely hold back when asked for their opinions!

The students at Rockwern Academy were no different. Some of the responses I received included: crickets, music, quiet, birds, echo, my friend laughing. The children envisioned a playground that included adventure, a store, swings, ladders, slides and a hill to roll down. Most of all, they reported their playground should sound fun.

SHP Outdoor Learning | SHPJohn and I translated their feedback into an imaginative yet practical design that includes the sounds of water falling, musical and wind chimes, various textures that produce a variety of sound, and trees, flowers and plants that will attract wildlife.

Spaces dedicated to small group learning, pavement games and discovery – a portion was dedicated to a sensory garden, centered by a imagination house, swings and slides – will contribute the murmur of voices and peals of laughter.

The project is currently under construction and will be complete just in time for the Rockwern Academy staff to start planning their 2017-18 curriculum. Indeed, the playground can (and should!) become an outdoor classroom when children are intentionally encouraged to use their five senses to learn.

It’s inspiring to experience a playground through the senses of a child – like Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Imagination leads us to examine questions and opportunities the mind cannot know.

And in my next post, I’ll share what the students at Rockwern Academy had to say about what their playground feels like. Youwon’t want to miss their answers!

Have a question about Rockwern Academy, outdoor education or SHP’s approach to outdoor learning? Drop me a note at or comment below. You can also check out some of my recommended blog posts, to the right.