How To Transform A Playground When You Have No Money, No Time, And No Idea What You’re Doing

Abe Moore
6 min readSep 22, 2019

Snapped at the end of a gruelling month in which we barely saw the inside of our classroom, this photo sums up the colossal effort it took for 25 children and a few adults to completely reimagine where and how children play at our school.

Our project’s mission was to transform play spaces. Not tinker. Transform. And some 30 weeks after the project began, transform they did. With little more than $1500 and a vision of what our school could be, a motley bunch of 12-year-old students created a range of diverse play spaces which will bring joy to their younger peers for years to come.

Before and After: The Secret Garden (top) and a new pathway into an unused forest space (below)
A prototype cornflour-paint scooter track; traverse climbing wall, dry creek bed and new mud kitchen

But transformation comes at a cost. In the days before the “doing” phase started, I was quietly dreading the complexity of the struggle that lay ahead. None of us had ever tackled a project quite like this one but I understood how much time and energy it would take to reach exhibition day. My team, however, did not. But now they know.

Students share their project experiences with the Minister for Water and the Environment, David Speirs.

They know the weight of a mattock and the effort required to swing it 100 times. They know the value of time and how quickly it dissolves in the rush to meet deadlines. They know what it means to be trusted and trustworthy. To work with real tools. To make decisions, not unimportant ones, real decisions, which carry real consequences. They understand the challenge of placemaking and how breathing life into neglected and unused spaces impacts a community.

Now, they know.

While we are proud of what these children have created, it is the process, the unseen effort, that is the real story. This is how we transformed our play spaces with no money, no time, and no idea what we were doing.

“How can we make our school a better place?”

The documentary If You Build It was our inspiration, the teaching and learning featured in the film were orientated around community needs. Armed with one essential question — “how can we make our school a better place?” — Students decided our play spaces were tired and uninspiring, and so, Project Reimaginate was born.

Gearing up to join the prototype scooter track.

I believe it is possible to design meaningful and memorable experiences that impact community and cover the curriculum. We can learn and make a difference in the lives of others. Co-designing the project with students was vital to developing a sense of connection with the learning; each other; and the community. Students provided the context, we plugged in the content.

When we plan an experience, we’re already aware of what outcomes will be achieved. We’re planning for what’s going to happen next and already have each step in mind. In contrast, to design an experience — or space — we’re opening possibilities for students to learn in multiple fashions. We have a general idea of where we want to be, but we’re side-by-side in that learning experience. — Ryan Hopkins-Wilcox, Things Fall Apart Podcast.

We spent months looking, listening and learning. Students audited our playground and organised excursions to explore other spaces. They consulted, constructed arguments, lobbied adults, budgeted, and presented. But no two students had the same experience or learned the same things. Each contributed according to their interests and strengths. Students developed teams based on shared goals and worked interdependently to meet them.

“If we had enough money, we could pay someone to do this for us.”

“Yeah, but then it wouldn’t really be ours.”

Student-designed wooden butterfly artworks add a pop of colour to the Secret Garden

To overcome our lack of money and expertise, we had to become connected. We turned to our community for help and guidance. We developed relationships with the local council and community organisations. We “begged, borrowed and bartered” with local business, families and staff to find the materials desperately needed for the build which were well beyond our meagre budget.

A Playground Built on Time and Trust

To suggest that we had no time to complete our project is, of course, a fallacy. Primary schools have loads of time, it just feels like we don’t. We battle an ever-present sense of urgency to perpetually do and achieve more. I feel it. The prospect of taking a month off from normal programming to tackle this project had me a little nervous.

“We need genius weeks and a direct instruction hour.” - Ira Socol

As I mentioned earlier, transformation comes at a cost. The time spent working on this project could not be refunded. We embraced the idea of a direct instruction hour focused on core skills like math or literacy, and leaned into our “genius weeks”. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t money, time, or expertise that built our play spaces, it was trust.

Working interdependently

Without trust, we couldn’t succeed. I couldn’t micromanage this project into being, I had to relinquish control to the kids. We regularly had small teams of students working in several different parts of the school, managing their time, tools and teams. They knew what needed to be done, after all, it was their vision that we were bringing to life. What they needed from me was the time and space to experience the work.

Finally, for any of this to happen, I needed the trust of leadership. Our brand new, first-year principal could’ve been forgiven for wanting to steer well clear of the potential pitfalls involved in this project. But, to date, I can’t think of an instance when we were met with a “no”. He kept finding a way to get to “yes”. It might just end up being the best $1500 he will ever spend.

I’ll end with a quote from Timeless Learning, the book that provided the foundations and much of the inspiration for this project.

Learning becomes timeless when we trust in childhood and relinquish control to children. If we let them lead, they explore, widely and wildly. Their curiosities take them places that most adults no longer can envision in the random clutter of curriculum, designed to be taught and tested in isolation of the child as full participant in rather than just a recipient of learning. Given the opportunity to construct learning, young people use technologies of all sorts to manipulate the world, not only traditional tools such as pencils, art brushes, saws, and drills, but also modern tools such as mobile devices. Children can control their use of space and environment, and they learn much more than the curriculum chosen for them when educators support that.

Feedback from Year 1/2 students — Photos by Trudy & Sarah Knox

Thanks for reading. You can check out Project Reimaginate at our student created website listed below and/or follow our entire journey via our Twitter feed



Abe Moore

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor