Stories by Us – Lantern Road Elementary Media Center

Note: Playful Solutions is an education consultation company. The lead designer and co-owner is an educator who uses her extensive training in Project Based Learning and Environment as the Third Teacher to design spaces with our clients, not for them. The process is entirely collaborative. The end result is a vision that includes the voices of the learning community along with that of our lead designer.

a sign that reads "stories by us"This project began with a tiny space and some BIG ideas! Lantern Road Elementary is a public school serving grades K-4 in Fishers, Indiana. They asked us to assist them in creating a maker space that reflects their unique school culture and values.

Large empty bookshelf with yellow tape criss crossed over it. @ tables with chairs. Posters on the walls.
Before. The original area designated for the maker space.
a large sheet of paper covered in ideas generated by the students of the school
Maker space ideas gathered by LRE students grades K-4

As we talked with the media center specialist about her vision for the space, she repeatedly spoke of her students’ passion for storytelling. Although the media center contained a generous supply of works from outside authors, and it was evident that the staff encouraged a deep love of reading and writing in their students, the environment itself did not speak to this passion.

Bookshelves and couches. view of an empty window with nothing in front.
Before. Expanded maker space area that would later become “Stories by Us”.

It was clear that we were going to need more square footage to complete the vision. Thankfully, the staff and administration embraced our greatly expanded design plan. First, we divided the entire media center into 3 zones.

The staff moved bookshelves and reorganized books to create the first new zone called Stories by Others. This is now the more traditional part of the media center. It contains all of the free-standing bookcases that were previously spread out over the entire media center, the majority of the book collection, and desktop computers.

Large bespoke wooden sign with metal letters spelling out stories by others

The sign is a Playful Solutions custom design that now defines the function of the space. We used reclaimed wooden slats and large metal letters to make a bold statement while also retaining a traditional “old library” feel.

Inquiry is the second zone. It had previously been a place solely for students to check materials in and out. However, it has now also become a place for rotating provocations, collaborative project work, and staff training.

full size desk with clutter on the wall behind
Before. Check out space

The media center specialist removed the left half of the large check out counter to create a better flow from the front of the media center to the back. She also painted the back wall a neutral color. This color helped the new sign stand out even more!

a large sign over a bookcase reading "Inquiry"

The Inquiry sign was another custom designed piece installed by Playful Solutions. We used reclaimed wooden slats and letters with cozy patterns, keys, and door knockers to spell out the purpose of the space.

The third zone underwent the most dramatic change to become Stories by Us.

wooden sign with unfinished letters that spell out stories by us

This sign was designed by Playful Solutions to be distinctly different from the other signs in the space, starting with the placement of the reclaimed wood. The wood pieces were staggered and stained in different shades to give the piece a more homemade look.

bespoke wooden sign that says stories by us

We also anchored these simple, unfinished wooden letters to the backboard so that they could be removed. We did this to give the students and staff the opportunity to finish out the design themselves! We look forward to seeing their work!

Playful Solutions designed 3 new Landing Spaces™ within the Stories By Us zone. The purpose of each of these Landing Spaces™ is for learners to be able to play out, document, and display their own stories using a variety of authentic tools and materials.

a display of student art called Emery's House

After we established the Landing Spaces™, Playful Solutions contractors got to work on custom pieces like this large, wheelchair accessible Lego wall. At the same time, we also set our client out on a task. For educators who enjoy a good treasure hunt, like our friends at LRE, this is often their favorite part of the project.

Boys building on a Lego wall
Large wheelchair accessible Lego wall

For this first space, we asked the media center specialist to use her unique connections with other educators, school families, and even members of the community to hunt for research materials and authentic tools related to fields like geography, engineering, and architecture.

child using a shape stencil

children building with wooden blocks on the floor

We also asked her to try to acquire authentic blueprints of some of the local buildings. The response from the community was amazing! She received so many blueprints (including blueprints from a brand new IKEA store nearby) that they were able to display some of the blueprints in a large frame next to the Lego wall, while others are easily accessible for students to roll out and mark up either on the floor or on the standing table.

The second Landing Space™ in Stories by Us was inspired by this storage unit and a closet full of old games.

a table full of various games, some full sets, others missing pieces
Before. Inspiration for the game story creation space.

The media center specialist told us that the children loved exploring games, but most of their games were missing pieces, so they had been stored in a closet. This was the perfect opportunity for students to create their own stories through game design!

child with a basket of random game pieces and holding up 2 number tiles

We asked the media center specialist to combine all of the game pieces and accessories together.

girls cutting cardboard to make a game board

We also asked her to gather materials and tools for students to be able to make their own boards, document their game stories, and keep score.

2 girls drawing at a table

The final and largest Landing Space™ of Stories by Us is for dramatic expression. Playful Solutions designed and installed a large custom stage at the front of the media center, so that children can create their own backdrops directly on the windows or create their own props to stand up behind the stage.

a wooden stage set against a wall in front of a window.

For this space, we asked our client to collect materials or tools that might be useful for actors, directors, dancers, singers, songwriters, or poets. We suggested items like fabric, scarves and ties, costume jewlery, chip clips, and playbills and concert pamphlets to name a few.

boys standing on a stage singing into echo microphones

We also designed and installed one of our exclusive Sensory Kitchens™ in this space.

a custom play kitchen built out of wood and larger than most play kitchens available in stores

This was a perfect choice for the Stories by Us project because:

1. Many of the children’s ideas centered around food: a coffee shop, ice cream, a chocolate fountain, etc.

colorful dishes set on a table

2. We often associate food with community and conversation, which is a natural form of storytelling.

boy writing down meal orders on a note pad

3. The kitchen provides endless opportunities for authentic literacy and meaningful writing in a playful way.

child reading a recipe book

4. The Sensory Kitchen™ is a place to practice life skills and can be used to enhance cultural studies. We encouraged the media center specialist to rotate what is in the sensory bin as well as any books, tools, and materials used with it. In this way, the kitchen can accommodate project work involving cultural studies.

International grocery stores contain dry goods with unique textures and smells that will easily fill the kitchen’s sensory bin. There are different tools used in kitchens around the world. The kitchen can open up opportunities for family engagement and a cultural exchange of ideas surrounding food rituals and historical recipes. It additionally encourages entrepreneurial skills.

child's kitchen with bar top on the back and stools pulled up to it

We matched the color of the kitchen to one of the colors in the rug that the media center specialist loves, and chose a dark stain to compliment the beautiful, rich color.

We added a bar-top table to the back of the wheelchair-accessible kitchen to give them more counter space, and to encourage a natural flow of conversation.

Every part of this design incorporates loose parts theory, so there is a great deal of cross-pollination. The environment encourages architects, poets, and executive chefs to collaborate and come together to share their ideas and their stories.

After the Project

We returned to take some of these photos several months after the project was completed and were surprised to see that very little had changed. The intent of our designs is to encourage flexibility; to show how the environment can change to meet the growing needs of learners. However, since this is a media center, the children are only here for a short time, 1 or 2 days a week. We were happy to see that they were still fully engaged with all of the materials!

The media center specialist reported that she attempted to switch out just one of the provocations, but the children immediately noticed and implored her to bring it back. She is a great example of an educator following the lead of her students, and I am sure that there will be many more stories to come from Lantern Road Elementary.

children building at the Lego wall under the Stories By Us sign




Find Your Own Space!

girl fitting coins into circular slots

Learning is a social experience, but sometimes we need a little space for ourselves too. My 2yo friends have come to this realization over the last couple of weeks. While I work with them to identify and verbalize their need for personal space, I also adapted one of our invitations to help out. I simply used some closed game boards to create a sense of boundaries with one of our communal spaces.

I did not say anything at all to my friends about the new layout. They could all work together on one board if they wanted. They could freely move around to different boards if they wanted. I simply watched and waited for an opportunity to help my friends with this new social challenge, which didn’t take long at all. It sounded like this:

Regan: *scrunching up her face and shoulders and bearing her teeth*

Me: Regan, your face is telling me that you feel angry or frustrated?

Regan: I don’t want him to be next to me!

Me: Oh! You would like to work by yourself?

Regan: Yes!

Me: I understand! The words you are looking for are, ‘I would like my own space, please!’

Regan to Ben: I would like my own space, please!

Me to Ben: Ben, I heard Regan say that she would like her own space. She would like to work by herself right now. I see that Regan is working on the blue board. Would you like to work on the black board or the orange board while you wait for her? 

Ben: Black!

(names have been changed to protect privacy)

Setting Them Up for Success

Intentionally balance authority with freedom.

I had direct control over what the invitation looked like and why it was set up that way. I also provided physical proximity, knowing that I would have the opportunity to help my friends work through this challenge successfully. My friends however, still had the freedom to choose how they interacted with the materials and with each other.

Translate body language into spoken language.

“Your face is telling me that you feel angry or frustrated.” I validated Regan’s feelings, while also giving both of my friends more verbal language to express their big emotions. This also gave Ben more real-world experience in reading other people’s feelings. Ben can begin to connect words like angry and frustrated to Regan’s scrunched up shoulders and bared teeth.

Turn problem statements into need statements.

Regan stated a problem that directly related to Ben’s actions, “I don’t want him to be next to me!” It sounded like a personal attack, but really it was her way of telling me to take care of the problem for her. However, my job is not to take care of problems for my friends, but to help them navigate problems for themselves. So I turned her problem statement into a need statement, “You would like to work by yourself.” Need statements help children express a personal need to someone else — in this case the need to work alone.

Teach and model common social scripts.

“I would like my own space, please,” is a social script that I teach my friends because personal space comes up quite frequently. Positive social scripts are a common language that we all use to communicate our needs and wants to one another. I also use them as a kind of “bat signal.” If I hear an escalated variation of a script — “Find your own space!” — I know exactly what is happening and how I need to intervene immediately; no questions asked!

Assume the best and say it out loud!

Regan, and many adults in this situation, might assume that Ben was there to take something away from Regan. Even if that were the case, it is my job as the adult to assume the best of Ben. It is also my job to communicate that best assumption to both of them, while also respecting Regan’s right to personal space. “Would you like to work…while you wait for her?” The end of this question assumes and communicates to both of them that Ben was there because he wanted to work with Regan. So if Ben had been there to take something away from Regan, he has now heard me say something better about his intentions, which he is more likely to repeat in the future.

Follow up with positive redirection.

“Ben, I heard Regan say that she would like her own space. She would like to work by herself right now. I see that she is working on the blue board. Would you like to work on the black board or the orange board while you wait for her?”

Positive redirections do not feel or sound like a consequence because they are not. There was no reason for Ben to feel ashamed for standing next to Regan because I assumed the best of him. This positive redirection gave Ben a better understanding of what Regan needed: personal space. I also immediately presented him with a very concrete choice: black or orange. This gave Ben a way to be successful and feel empowered, instead of hurt or embarrassed. Because he already felt successful, he was compelled to make a good choice!

This was the very first time I have used this script with this group of friends. I know from experience that I will need to repeat it and model it consistently many, many more times before they can use it successfully on their own. However, I remind myself that my purpose is to teach them skills that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. That takes time. That takes intention. That takes knowing my why.