This week, the new Opal School playground opens. Over the coming days, weeks, months, and years, stories will be born there: children will discover new things about themselves, each other, and the world. A land that previously didn’t exist will become the setting for cherished memories.
Likewise, many stories went into the creation of this playspace. The tale of its creation can be – and has been – told in many different ways. One telling might begin with a group of teachers dreaming of a new kind of school for Portland’s children more than a decade ago; others would start the story with a group of fifth graders dreaming of a gift to their school for the gems that filled their pockets (and in appreciation of the retirement of one of the founders.) Last week, as the school stood and sang in this new space to celebrate its opening, hundreds of educators from around the world gathered in New York City to hear the playground story through a lens of how an interdisciplinary, inquiry-based approach to learning steeped in play and the tools of the arts, with dialog and listening at the forefront, can lead learning communities to sophisticated understandings and relationships that would otherwise remain unimagined.
Before Susan told that story focused on last year’s Opal 3, Daniel Gersten – an architect, writer, and professor at Rhode Island School of Design – spoke of the need for this approach to learning. We need educational environments, he argued, that acknowledge and draw upon the fundamental connection between the hand and the brain (and the heart, of course – though I’m not sure that he referred to that explicitly.) He described how embodied experience leads to embodied understanding – and how it’s embodied understanding that prepares us to approach novel problems. He described the art of teaching as one that fosters unique spaces of reciprocity, where people and their work listen to each other with an openness to transformation.
The playground narrative the audience in New York heard seemed to move the close to 400 people in attendance, apparently leading them to consider new possibilities for what can happen in the teaching and learning spaces they lead. Hearing the voices of one group of children and teachers in Oregon seemed to inspire them to recontextualize their work with children – whether in Williamsburg or Reykjavik. With the opening of the playground, we have a new landscape for learning. That’s good for the Opal School community – and for children, teachers, and families around the world.