Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.” Following that philosophy, the playground becomes a child’s office. And the new playground at Mi Sol Academy, an early childhood Montessori center in Orland Park, is a space specifically designed to allow children to do their very best work and play.
“Our school is unique. It is different from other schools, and we felt our playground should also be different,” explains Alex Camarena, administrator of Mi Sol Academy. “The playground at our school is not what children already have in their backyard or at their neighborhood park.”
The unique features of the playground make it feel a bit like stepping into a wooded wonderland. It includes small climbing walls, a zip line, a mud kitchen complete with a rain barrel providing water, a repurposed tire mound and a weight balance station, all under a canopy of trees.
In addition to providing a place for fun, the children at Mi Sol are reaping many additional benefits from the playground.
The unique design of the playground helps the school achieve its curriculum goals.
“The playground is an extension of our classroom. It lets kids use their imagination, make a plan and set goals, just like they do in the classroom,” says Erika Camarena, a director and lead teacher at Mi Sol Academy.
She compares the climbing wall to academic challenges. “A child may not be able to go very high on the climbing wall, but as they challenge themselves and build strength, they reach new heights, similar to how in the classroom they move from easier work to harder work.”
Lots of learning takes place on the playground, including practicing math beyond the classroom walls. “We use our grouping of tires to skip count, multiply, measure and compare. We count by tens jumping from tree stump to tree stump,” she says.
Appreciation of the natural world
The playground also fits in with the school’s emphasis on learning about the natural world, and that’s another way the lessons in the classroom are applied on the playground. “The children begin to develop an appreciation for animals, for trees, for flowers through their exposure and study of vertebrates and plants in science,” Erika Camarena says.
“Our school also focuses attention on ‘respect’ and it begins with respect for nature and all living beings. On our playground, we observe and appreciate nature,” she says of the space that is shaded by towering trees. “It is up to us as adults to provide our children the opportunities to stay connected to the beauty that nature has to offer.”
Since installing the new playground last spring, the faculty at Mi Sol has witnessed an increase in the positive socialization skills among the children and more cooperative activities taking place. “Instead of just going down the slide and being done, they’re working together to plan activities, there is more role play and more imagination at work,” says Camarena.
Because classes are comprised of students either ages 3-6 or in grades first through third, there are always different ages at the playground at one time. “You can see emerging leaders and watch students nurturing others,” she says. “The students develop an appreciation for each other’s capacities.”
Unlike a large playground structure grounded in cement, the playground at Mi Sol Academy is not static, but rather the staff is continually rearranging, changing and adding to it, and that is part of the long-term plan.
“It will keep evolving, just as we see our students changing,” Camarena says.