A playful, learning straw journey at Woodmere

By William Valerio
Posted 10/15/20

There’s nothing that pleases me more than receiving questions from the Local’s readers. Recently on these pages, I described that Woodmere’s Straw Journey is built this year around …

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A playful, learning straw journey at Woodmere


There’s nothing that pleases me more than receiving questions from the Local’s readers. Recently on these pages, I described that Woodmere’s Straw Journey is built this year around the principles of the Playful Learning Landscape movement, which is now a global learning phenomenon that was started here in Philadelphia at Temple University. A reader reached asked for further comment on Playful Learning and how it is connected to our current configuration of straw bales. Here goes!

The Playful Learning Movement addresses a crisis in education that is set in shocking relief by a study published by the United Nations in 2017.  It is estimated that by the year 2030, 55% of all children on the planet who reach the age of secondary education completion will not possess the basic learning skills required to operate in a rapidly changing world with environmental and socio-economic challenges and increasingly automated workplaces. The Playful Learning Landscape movement looks at the 80% of a child’s time that is not spent in a school and considers the potential of educational engagement in places like playgrounds and parks, libraries and museums, supermarkets and even bus stops, positing that educational activity designed with specific learning outcomes can fill these public places and be made as fun as they are smart, thereby advancing a child’s learning profile.

Knowing that our straw maze would need to be different this year due to Covid, Hildy Tow, Woodmere’s Director of Education, redesigned Woodmere’s traditional straw maze together with architects Peter Brown and Barbara Sprague and with Shelly Kessler, Executive Director, Playful Learning Landscapes Action Network, and  Rachael Todaro, a Post Doctoral Fellow at Temple University's Infant &  Child Laboratory, as a journey between distinct configurations of straw bales and sculpture, each of which offers a different Playful Learning experience.

It is well documented, for example, that a mathematical understanding of fractions, for example, can be baked into a child’s mind through encounters with a grouping of objects that demonstrate proportional and fractional relationships in real space and unfolding in real-time. At Woodmere’s Dina Wind sculpture, Spring & Triangle, for example, 12 bales of straw are arranged to respond to the shapes of the sculpture in three groupings of four bales, demonstrating the various factors and fractions associated with the number 12. Children can play and jump from bale to bale and then run through the form of the sculpture, and experience the concept of “12” and its factors.

At Steve Tobin’s Alter Root, we offer a lesson in negative and positive space; visual literacy is an important 21st-century skill and it is grounded in training the mind to assess not only a shape—the positive image--but the relationships it creates with spaces around it, meaning the negative space it may cut against the sky or another object that is adjacent or behind.   

Each of six such learning opportunities between sculpture and straw is packaged in a “Passport” art booklet that can be downloaded to a device or picked up in hard copy on Woodmere’s porch.  The Straw Journey is up and open at Woodmere for as long as the weather allows and we encourage families and pods of children to come and enjoy…and playfully learn!

William Valerio is the director of Woodmere Art Museum.

Woodmere Art Museum