Topic: College of Architecture and Planning

December 29, 2015

Students and members of the community explore the outdoor playscape and learning center designed by associate architecture professor Pam Harwood and her students.

On a once-unremarkable tract of land, where thistle sprouted and nuisance Johnson grass spread unchecked, rich black dirt now nurtures possibility.

Little hands dig deep into the soil, hoping to hide flower bulbs from would-be scavengers who will spend winter looking for food. If found, the tulips and crocuses provide a delicious treat, but come spring—provided the squirrels stand clear—the path that students carved into the earth behind Muncie Head Start will bloom red, blue and yellow, leading the children into the heart of their school’s nature playscape.

Designed by Pam Harwood, associate professor of architecture, and her students, the nearly 2-acre space is turning what many think of as recess into a learning environment. It gives little minds and bodies room to develop gross and fine motor skills—along with their imaginations—in a largely unstructured setting. Work on the project began in August 2013, with the second of five phases having finished in October.

Elements include a sand-and-water table, wood blocks for building, a music and story area with varied-length sections of pipe that make different sounds when struck, weatherproof Plexiglas easels for painting, a tunnel that runs beneath a small grassy hill and some open prairie for group games. While it’s not traditional swings or slides, Harwood says the elements let children create their own fun and explore the world.

“They are balancing on logs and using pieces of timber as ramps to roll things up and down. They are climbing and crawling on structures that are made out of natural elements and traditional materials. They’re using music and movement—it’s free and unstructured so they get to make choices. They’re deciding what they want to do.”

Partnership benefits everyone

Project Partners

Ball Brothers Foundation

College of Architecture and Planning Immersive Learning Mini Grant

Community Foundation of Delaware County

Provost’s Immersive Learning Grant

Lilly Community Service Mini Grant for Earth Day Activities

Sallie Mae Foundation

Additional support from private businesses and organizations—

Bob Lewis Excavation

Brumond Smith Nursery

Flatland Resources


Rebuilding Our Community

Schick Sand & Gravel

Local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops

Spence Restoration Nursery

Tabberson Architects

The Beamery


The project, a partnership between Ball State and school readiness program Head Start, developed after Head Start teachers Tyanne Vazquez and Debbie Arrington worked with Harwood, and Kay Gordon, state director of Head Start, and created a real proposal after pitching a fictional project in a grant writing class.

Vazquez knew Harwood had a history with community-engaged, immersive learning projects. So the Head Start teacher emailed the architect to see if the idea generated any interest.

It did.

“The project was valuable, both to the Ball State students as well as to the Head Start children,” Harwood said.

The combined efforts have netted more than $200,000 through grants, with additional support coming from private businesses and organizations.

“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate everyone,” Vazquez said. “When you see how far it’s come, and you think of the possibilities, it’s amazing.”

Students see playscape’s benefits

As work on the first phase neared completion, many of Harwood’s students were struck by how plans can change from an idea to actual construction.

“It’s motivating to me to see the impact of a thing, to see kids having opportunities they might not otherwise have without this space.”

Ross Goedde
architecture student

Ross Goedde helped develop a sensory garden space, and he loved watching the students begin to utilize the area.

“You design with a certain intention, but you can’t really be sure how a space will be used,” he said. “It’s motivating to me to see the impact of a thing, to see kids having opportunities they might not otherwise have without this space.”

Zahra Zamani, a doctoral research intern from Iran, said the nature playscape provides hands-on research in her area of study—the attention span of preschoolers. She hopes that what she learns will help inform other schools or community groups that may wonder if outdoor educational areas are worthwhile.

‘There’s just so much for kids to do here’

Zamani may be years from a quantitative answer, but parents who have children at the school don’t doubt the playscape’s value.

“One of the things that sticks out for me, as a parent, is Ashton will come home and say, ‘I found a ribbit (frog).’ It’s just so amazing,” said Sarah Haisley, whose children Adriana, 5, and Ashton, 3, come to Head Start each day. “This area gives them different opportunities and draws them outside to learn and explore.”

By the Numbers

200,000 – dollars in funding

19,146 – hours spent on project

109 – interdisciplinary students

17 – community build days

7 – semesters of work

Added fellow parent Krista Strait, “When I first heard about this, I never thought about all the options that would be available. I was just thinking flowers and plants.

“But there’s just so much for kids to do here, and kids today don’t always have that enough. To be able to bring your kids out here and let them explore, it’s something that I really notice now.”

Strait says she sees a difference in her son, Mal’Aki Hart, 3, after he’s spent time in the playscape.

“When he’s outside more, he’s more relaxed. He’s tired when it’s bedtime. He’s just happy.”

More to come

Harwood continues to work with Vazquez to get the playscape certified as an outdoor learning classroom, which would be the first of its kind for an Indiana Head Start facility. A timeline for phases three through five of the project hasn’t been set. Funding will partly dictate the schedule, Harwood and Vazquez said. But neither woman is worried: The funds will come.

“The partnership and collaboration has just been tremendous,” Vazquez said. “This really is about building community.”

“We’ve all spent a total of more than 19,000 hours on the project,” Harwood added. “That’s the equivalent of working two years straight. This isn’t something a single person could ever do.”

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