Rosewood School in West Hollywood is not your typical public school. An urban planning and design magnet school, its curriculum has not only a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) focus but also one that centers on building a new generation of great city thinkers, builders, and problem-solvers. And, by the way, it’s a K–5 school.
So how do you make urban planning meaningful and relevant—not to mention understandable—to students as young as kindergarteners? For us, it’s the same way that you make urban planning meaningful and relevant to anyone: Help people make connections between their everyday lives, their core values, and their physical surroundings, and help them realize that they, too, can shape those surroundings.
In concrete terms, we do this by having people build a favorite childhood memory—or, in the case of children, have them build what they love to do in the city. Using simple, found objects and trinkets, the participants are freed from the constraints of perfect scale and can let their imaginations run wild. We then have them use the same batch of objects to build their ideal city, but this time working in teams.
Recently, Rosewood invited us to conduct a daylong series of interactive, model-building workshops with students of all ages. While our approach varied somewhat from class to class depending on the age, what we first and foremost wanted to accomplish with the students was to introduce them in simple terms to what urban planning is and then have them build models of their favorite and most cherished parts of their cities and what they love to do there.
What was most instructive to observe and learn was how the students’ conceptions of both urban planning and cities evolved over the course of the 45-minute workshops.
“What is urban planning?” we would start off by asking. “Buildings!” many of the students would eagerly reply. “What does an urban planner do?” “Designs buildings!” they’d say. (You’d think we were talking to architects.) “How does a planner know what to design?” “He just knows how to design buildings!” one student would offer.
Across age levels, the students initially understood urban planning and cities as mainly consisting of static objects once removed from their everyday lives. Yet when we then introduced the exercise of having them build what they loved to do in cities—their favorite activity, their favorite place—the students created cities that were much more than mere buildings, and they began to see how planning is both shaped by and shapes their lives.
As a bridge to that activity, we talked about the question “How does a planner know what to design?” in very simple terms: planners have to know how people live and what their lives are, what they love and like and do, before they can plan. “So we’re going to build what we love to do in cities so that we can then plan our cities better.”
Eagerly running to one of two tables set at each end of the room that were piled up with trinkets and found objects, the kids had mini–treasure troves of colorful objects to pick from. Yet to limit how long students stayed at each table—some definitely could have spent all day there—we did cap the number of objects each picked at six. Back at their tables, they then furiously and boisterously began building, all the while talking with their tablemates and sharing their favorite things to do in their city.
“I’m going to build a sushi bar!” said one fourth-grader. “I’m going to build a soccer field,” said another.
Before building, one third-grade boy had eagerly said, “I’m going to build a video game system!” This was perfectly fine and within the purview of what they could build, as we left the prompt open-ended. However, when the student started building with his found objects, he created something quite different from what he had planned: a park.
In fact, during the report-back portion of the exercise when we went around the room and had the students share what they had built, that particular student expressed complete surprise with himself at what he had made, “I said I was going to build a video-game system, but I ended up building a park! I don’t know why!”
His reaction speaks volumes to the ability of this method to help us mine and tap into our core values. Our lives may involve activities like video games, shopping, watching TV or movies online, sitting in parking lots, and driving. Yet when prompted to build either their favorite activity or, for older participants, their favorite childhood memory, people young and old consistently build memories or experiences that involved friends, family, nature, exploration, and belonging—activities that speak to what in our lives we hold near and dear.
In going over the students’ models of their favorite city activities, we reiterated that what we were doing was learning about our friends’ and classmates’ lives and what we love so that we could then make better cities, which is precisely what the next exercise was: Be your own urban planners and work in teams with your tablemates to build the city of your dreams.
The students were let loose to go back to the tables and pick out new items for their cities. Once back at their tables, they became their own urban planning teams and built cities inspired by the models from the first exercise, but with new elements and surprises thrown in.
Parks, gardens, playgrounds, sushi bars, rocket ships, sports fields, lakes for swimming, spaces for animals and insects. And always friends. In fact, almost all of the models they built involved play and being with friends and family. No one built a TV, a computer, WiFi, or a smartphone-charging station. When we mine our core values, the simple things come to the fore.
So then where does all of this go?
In the case of Rosewood, we had conducted a series of trainings on these methods with the teachers, and after the workshops, the teachers began weaving this model-building method into their everyday curriculum, regardless of subject. Then–Magnet Coordinator Christine Neil, who now works as a kindergarten readiness coach within LAUSD, relayed that teachers had the students write about their model-building experiences.
“We have worked to integrate the planning-related projects into our standards such as reading and writing,” Neil says. “So the students journaled about what it was like to build models and learn about urban planning.” She also offered up a glimpse of next steps for the students beyond just reading and writing: “I would propose a civic activity in which students looked into areas in our neighborhood that might be similar to the places they built and also those places where they might put what they had built in their models. With the older students, I’d propose a follow-up field trip to a planning office to meet with a planner, so that they can ask those questions of planners directly. That covers social studies, oral language, and reading.”
Neil’s ideas underscore the often overlooked importance of engaging students, and people of all ages, in seemingly complex subjects through their hands and other nonverbal forms of exploration and inquiry. A simple model-building exercise of found objects with no expectations of perfection or perfect scale—one that’s centered on a series of broadly focused prompts (“build your favorite childhood memory”)—can open up new worlds to participants, unlocking knowledge they didn’t know they had, tapping into their innate capacity for design and problem-solving.
It can also engage them with modes of communication and collaboration (as opposed to shouting matches over whose idea is best). Indeed, the first ways in which we explore the world are not through talking but through our primal senses. It makes sense, then, that when we go back to engaging with our hands and senses, we find comfort and ease, both states of being essential for creativity, collaborative play, and the kinds of visionary ideas and expansive thinking we need more than ever these days.
All photos by James Rojas.