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In partnership with families, the Greater Richmond ARC creates life-fulfilling opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

Students learn simple machines, empathy

RICHMOND, VA -- Nearly 100 third grade students pour into the Greater Richmond ARC’s ARCpark. Released from the order of their visit to the Science Museum of Virginia, they rush into the gates. Students pause here and there, pointing out with excitement the levers, pulleys and inclined planes in the equipment.

This trip to the ARCpark, Richmond’s first all ages, all abilities park, marked the end of Crestwood Elementary School’s simple machines project. The project combined standards of learning (SOL) objectives with creativity as students investigated, designed and built models of ways to improve playground equipment to make it more accessible for individuals with disabilities.

“Kids learned empathy out of this,” said Nora Tetlow, one of Crestwood’s five third grade teachers.

Another teacher, Lauren Sammon, said her students were inspired and all came together to brainstorm ways to help one student who had a broken leg during the project.

“Seeing them actively thinking about others and how they could help others was very powerful,” she said.

The project started as a way to incorporate Chesterfield’s project-based learning concept. Tetlow said the team initially planned to base the assignments around how to make school easier, but that the project evolved to focus on the play component.

“Play is something that is so relevant and so important to them, as third graders,” she said. “They got excited about it!”

To introduce students to the project, the team designed an entry event. One representative from each class adopted a physical handicap, such a wearing a blindfold, using a rolling chair to simulate a wheelchair or wearing a sling. These students then tried to use the playground while classmates watched.

“It was really interesting,” Sammon said. “The girl who was in the ‘wheelchair’ just sat there the whole time—none of the other students thought to push her.”

Using this experience, activity books about simple machines and multimedia material about accessible equipment, students drafted ideas for additions that could be made to the Crestwood playground to make it more inclusive.

In groups, students built models out of donated trash such as paper towel tubes, yarn and cereal boxes. Third grade team leader Tina Guarnera said the cafeteria on building day was crazy, but everyone was busy and engaged.

“It’s fun because they are so proud of what they created,” she said.

Now in its third year, the project has expanded to include a trip to the ARCpark. Guarnera said they originally planned to visit the park before the building component of the project, but snow days forced them to reschedule. She said it was neat to see the result of this change in plans.

“The kids could point out simple machines while playing and made connections with class content.”

At the same time, students made connections with each other. Teacher Melissa Winters said she knows the parents on the field trip were really impressed with the ARCpark.

“One of the parents who has a handicapped son who has taken her son there before was just so happy and excited to see other kids playing and realizing that it’s not just for handicapped children—anybody can play there,” she said.

Guarnera said the project inspired compassion for others while learning SOL content.

“It gave them the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes instead of looking at them like they’re different,” she said.