Making Meaning in Education

Recently I was walking past a school playground and noticed a group of elementary school kids playing a game: two teams on either side of a central line were building hoop structures, and then throwing soft balls towards the opposing side to knock the structures down. Asking the Physical Education instructor about the game revealed its name: Castle Ball (here is a link to a high school lesson plan).

As I watched, I noticed the game required a collaborative effort on each team’s part: some had to construct the hoop structures while others threw balls to knock the opposing team’s structures down (a mixture of offense and defense, which we know from last night’s Super Bowl is VERY important). The first team to knock down all of the opposing structures won.

It was clear the kids enjoyed the physicality of the exercise, the competition AND the cooperation, yet I couldn’t help but think something was missing: how could the game be framed to make it personally meaningful to all participants? I realized that many times in education the lesson or activity is framed in a “follow these instructions but don’t ask why” framework.

I then began to think about how to make Castle Ball meaningful, even connecting it to personal responsibility and sustainability. One idea would be to start with a lesson on ecosystems, and how an ecosystem is an interconnected web of relationships that rely on each other to coexist. This could dovetail into building hoop castles where each hoop represents a key part of an ecosystem: clean water, fresh air, topsoil with nutrients, bacterial and fungal organisms, vegetation, animals, etc. Depending on the grade level, the lesson could even include socio-political aspects such as environmental legislation and responsible citizens. Once the students learned to build healthy ecosystems (in this case represented by hoops leaning against one another), the second part of the lesson would introduce what degrades ecosystems: air and water pollution, free-radical chemicals, overdevelopment, poaching of animals, erosion of topsoil, etc. Each of these “ecosystem enemies” would be represented by the balls used to throw at the hoop castles to knock them down.

Sound like a stretch? Perhaps. Yet with planning and correct framing of an exercise, any educational lesson can be imbued with meaning with metaphor and a bit of imagination. Last I checked, youth had plenty of imagination to go around, and if they don’t they should. After all, once Castle Ball becomes about protecting and destroying ecosystems, it raises the stakes considerably doesn’t it?

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