Mar 13, 2014
THEME: Learning

Taking a Leap Forward for Arts Education

The average elementary school student navigating San Francisco’s public school district is exposed to 20 minutes of creative arts education per week. For over 30 years Leap: Arts in Education, a private, non-profit organization, has been dedicated to bridging this enormous gap in educating future generations of creative, critical thinkers through their programs. They help children develop valuable skills like creative problem solving, conceptual methodologies, and critical and collaborative thinking. Local artists are hired to lead classroom workshops in subjects including architecture, creative writing, and theater, just to name a few.

Leap’s annual Sandcastle Contest is their largest charity event of the year, raising over $230,000 towards art education for over 40 public schools around San Francisco. In the months leading up to the contest, local architecture firms, builders, contractors, and vendors work with elementary school classes to raise funding for Leap Arts as well as to design 20’ x 20’ sandcastles that will be constructed at Ocean Beach the day of the actual event.

Volunteers from Perkins+Will and Skanska held the first of three workshops with 40+ 4th and 5th graders from Longfellow Elementary School in their classroom this past August to introduce this year’s theme of the sandcastle contest, “Masterpieces in Sand”.

After a brief introduction of our respective professions, we prompted the students with interpretations of what a masterpiece could be and how to engage in a collaborative design process. We presented everything from classical painting to sculpture, music, animation, literature, and architecture and set them to work on a group drawing exercise.

Both the collaborative and creative thinking aspects of the lesson came naturally to the students, encouraged by the six students per “pod” layout of the classroom as opposed to standard rows and aisles. All it really took was to ask students the right open-ended question. For example, we gave one group of students an image of Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog, and asked, “what is the setting for the sculpture? What kind of dog is this supposed to be? Who would the owner be? What is this made of?” And they were able to take it from there. The key to their success was that the students understood they had creative freedom within the guidelines of the workshop, and that any one conclusion is subject to interpretation.

At the end of the first session each group presented their work to the class. As part of the presentation they were asked to come up with a title to help us, the instructors, distill their interests for the next workshop aimed at developing a single design for the final sandcastle.

The next classroom visit, held three weeks later, was focused on transitioning from 2D to 3D, taking the themes from their drawings and sculpting them in clay in the same group setting. While slightly messier than the first workshop, the students showed the same comfort level making the jump to three dimensions and had no problem with the collaborative, hands-on aspect of the exercise.

During these two workshops the students seemed to gravitate towards images of dogs, so we proposed “Dog Beach” for the theme of the final sandcastle. We took the favorite sculptures to incorporate into a final scene, showcasing works of animation, sculpture and painting. This also proved a useful strategy for divvying up the effort to build the actual sandcastle, with discrete sections to be built by different teams.

Then the unthinkable happened; on October 1st the government shutdown forced Leap to cancel the sandcastle contest, with a new date to be determined. Needless to say the students’ spirits were crushed, but a few interested parties came to the rescue. Karen Alschuler, Global Discipline Leader of Urban Design at our San Francisco office, was able to secure a tour of the Giants Ballpark for the students. We decided to make a whole day of it by combining the stadium tour with a Perkins+Will office tour and third design workshop where we unveiled the final design for the sandcastle.

Just a few weeks later, the 30th anniversary of Leap’s Sandcastle Contest was rescheduled for November 9th. It was off to the races to re-book food and transportation and to coordinate all of the various roles necessary for the event.

On the morning of the sandcastle contest as many as 10,000 students, teachers, volunteers, and observers showed up to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach to witness the construction of 27 sandcastles. Using buckets, shovels, rakes, and trowels provided by our partners from Skanska, Perkins+Will employees, Skanska volunteers, and the students from Longfellow Elementary School broke up into four teams to construct the sandcastle we had all worked so hard to design.

When the final horn sounded at 4:30 that afternoon and we all took a step back it was hard not to be impressed by the work each team had accomplished.

The excitement and engagement of the students during the workshops and at the Sandcastle Contest was a constant reminder of what we were all working towards. Not only were they getting experience using creative problem solving techniques, they were also using these skills in team settings, a standard of the professional world. We were able to raise money and awareness of the need for art education in public schools all while providing an invaluable educational experience.

We all have the ability to be creative. Whether such creativity is integrated in our everyday thought processes depends on our exposure to inspiration, encouragement, guidance, and most importantly, practice. Leap: Arts in Education programs, as well as the Sandcastle Contest itself provides students access to creative and collaborative learning in both individual and project settings. They learn that every step in the design process plays an important role, and how a thoughtful design can translate into the teamwork necessary for the construction of the sandcastle itself.

Perkins+Will’s 2013 Leap Team included Sean Stillwell, Elena Ma, Marian Chan, and Kerstin Kraft.


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