Design for Play: A Creative Arts & Design Project

Design for Play

Creative Arts and Design Teacher, Maria Burke, created the “Design for Play” project for our DC Campus K – 5th graders. The project was integrated into the curriculum - in particular X-days, weekly days dedicated to experiential learning. This Creative Arts and Design lesson was shared with Shenzhen Campus teacher, Gao Yaan, who adapted the project for Shenzhen’s Lower School students. Continue reading to learn more about the project from Maria Burke or view the project PowerPoint here.


The Project Prompt

We know you love to play. Through play we learn more about our world. This design challenge invites you to create for play at Whittle School and Studios. This year we will work in Squirrel Park ---an important part of our community and a place where we go to play. We know play is good for us-builds our mind, our body and keeps us healthy. There are two types of outdoor playscapes: natural and constructed. Squirrel Park is a rolling landscape with trees and gives us nature within our city. What’s missing? We need your creativity and expertise on play. You are the experts, and this is your challenge to create something new!


Stages of Design Thinking Process at Whittle School & Studios

Designers create thousands of iterations before landing on a final design. Students at Whittle experience the design thinking process through creative building and resilience to collaboratively problem solve during this place-based challenge.

1. Empathy: Students research using empathy to understand the potential use and user of the design.

  • Researched ‘play’ in Squirrel Park through Anjiplay:
    • Building with clay
    • 10 ways to navigate a hill
    • 10 ways to roll a tire
    • Building structures with strength

2. Frame: Students define the challenge. What is needed or missing in Squirrel Park through mind-mapping.

  • Design Frame: Place to ‘play’ that is:
    • Sustainable
    • Inspired by nature
    • Accessible to all
    • Uses the land in its design


3. Ideate: Students brainstorm possible solutions through drafts of sketches—iterating, over and over with peer feedback along the way.



4. Create: Students create prototypes using various media to allow the media to influence the design process. (clay, paper, and maker) Iterations shift from 2D to 3D thinking.



5. Pitch: Students pitch their prototype designs and concepts with a panel of experts in the field of design, research on play, as well as administrators.

  • Post Pitch Design Frame:

    • Fort/Home Structure

    • Changes in elevation of design

    • Allows for choice in play

    • Use the land/nature/sustainable features

6. Improve: synthesize list of design needs and wants and prepare for a final build in the park when we return to school.

We will also do a full-scale cardboard build in the atrium in the Fall with Rune Fjord, to jumpstart the final build.

7. Reflection: Students share work and reflect at every stage of the process. (Especially—Empathy, Ideate, Create, Pitch) What did we learn from this stage of the design process? What’s working? What needs work? Is the design functional? How can we improve upon this idea? 



A Special Thank You to Our Community Partners


Dina Sorensen, Co-Founder of the Design Challenge

Dina is a designer of learning environments and co-chair of the AIA-CAE Research Sub-Committee. This is her third design challenge co-developed with Maria Burke. Dina was a guest expert during the prototyping phase and served as a design critic for student pitches and presentations during the design process.

Rune Fjord, Artist, Designer and Researcher on Play

Rune participated as a panelist for the Design for Play pitch online from Denmark. (He will possibly lead the final build on the school grounds next school year).

Dennis Bisgaard, Head of School, Whittle School & Studios

From a school administrator’s standpoint, Dennis served as a panelist to give students feedback on their pitched designs.

Lindsey Nelson, Director of Design Research, Whittle School & Studios

Lindsey served as a panelist to give students feedback on their pitched designs, as a former landscape architect and presently, designer at Whittle.

John Meaney, Landscape Architect

John is a Landscape Architect, based out of Charlottesville, VA, specializing in school landscapes. He played an integral part of framing the design needs for our play spaces based on student research and launching the ideation and prototyping phase with the CAD teacher.

Nancy Striniste, Landscape Designer, Educator

Nancy is a local Landscape Designer, author of the book, Nature Play at Home: Creating Outdoor Spaces that Connect Children with the Natural World, and designer of Constitution Gardens. Students participated in an X-day to Constitution Gardens to experience a scavenger hunt as they researched the playground for sustainable features and accessibility. They video-interviewed her the next day in CAD class to discuss her thinking behind her designs.