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




The Marker Who Didn’t Want to Draw

Once there was a young girl, not quite 2-years-old, who loved to draw. She joined a group of young artists who also loved to draw, and I was their guide. But when the young girl saw how the other artists used the crayons and pencils, she was horrified!

child's hand scribbling with a crayon

Some of the artists appeared to have no control at all! Their arms and hands flew across the paper without a thought or a plan. They were messy! The girl called out to them, “No! Stop!” She could not bring herself to work around those friends.

child's hand drawing a rainbow with a crayon

Next, she joined a group of artists who were much more calm and quiet. Their work was meticulous and beautiful, but she soon realized that their drawing skills were far superior to her own.

I could see that she was beginning to feel anxious and unsure of herself, so I devised a plan to help her see art from a different point of view. My plan was based on a simple question, “What if there was a marker who didn’t want to draw?”

Over the next few weeks, I set up a series of experiments to test the question. Before each experiment, I shared a story:

child holding a marker in his hands

This marker is feeling sad. Every day she watches quietly from her box as friends laugh and play all around her. Whenever a friend helps her out of the box, they expect her to draw. Friends say to the marker, “Draw a car!” or “Make a picture for Mommy!” Sometimes they ask the marker silly questions like, “What is that shape?” or “What color is this?” Sometimes the marker just doesn’t know, and she doesn’t really care either.

This marker knows that she is very good at drawing and making things. She is good at it because she has had a lot of time to practice, but today she and her friends would like to do something different. They want to do what you would like to do. So what do they want to do? How would they like to play today?*

Over a period of six weeks, my young artists had quite a few answers to this question, including the anxious almost two-year-old:

girl jumping on a trampoline and marking on a large piece of cardboard

“Go up and down like an airplane!”

“I’m jumping like a tiger!”

“This one goes down the slide with Daddy!”

“The pink is on a roller coaster!”

“It’s kind of like a spaceship. It flies!”

child's hand pushing a marker into a piece of styrofoam

“The brown likes to dig.”

“I have to push hard!”

“I’m digging a DEEP hole!”

Styrofoam with multiple colored dots, lines, and holes

“I’m poking lots of little dots. I will count them 1,2,3…”

“This marker is motorcycling. It’s riding on top.”

close up of a piece of styrofoam broken into smaller pieces

“Look! It’s breaking into orange!”

children coloring on the underside of a table

“This marker wants to go upside down now.”

“It’s swirling into backwards Cs!”

boy holding a marker in between his feet and coloring on the underside of a table

“I’m pinching my feet. This one is ice skating!”

boy laying down on a large sheet of paper and waving the markers in his hands

“I’m swimming like my sister!”

child's hands lining up matching colors of markers

“These markers all like to match, like a family.”

boy rolling a marker down a ramp

“The markers want to roll today. They are going to race like the cars!”

boy holding up a marker tower

“I’m going to build a tower. It’s really wiggly.”

girl holding onto a marker tower from the top and the bottom

“Be careful! Hold it at the top so it doesn’t crash.”

2 children building markers across the floor to reach a basket

“Let’s see how many markers it takes to get to the basket. It’s like the marker is a measuring unit.”

girl lining up markers and connecting them on the floor

“It’s a train! Oops! It broke in the middle. I can fix it!”

girl coloring with a marker attached to a flashlight

“This is the tornado spinning.”

child's hands with a flashlight and markers moving fast

“I’m spinning around in circles. STOP! and GO!”

blurry image of 2 children running around a trampoline

“I want to find circles to spin around.”

“This marker is chasing you around the circles. You better run!”

“First your marker chases me, and then my marker chases you.”

toy bug sitting in colorful styrofoam

The anxious artist, now fully 2-years-old, is still with us. She still needs my help from time to time, especially being around friends who like to get “messy.” However, she feels much more comfortable expressing herself and her ideas now. She has seen how we celebrate the diversity within each art experience. She has realized that not every experience has to have a plan. Sometimes the only purpose is joy; the only goal is self-confidence. Everything else can wait.

*Full disclosure. We also had a conversation ahead of time, every time, about keeping the markers “safe” during the experiments. The markers were to “keep their helmets on until they had a safe place to land.”