Learning Environments

What If We Designed Schools Like Disney Designs Parks?

February 20, 2015

In 1955, Walt Disney opened an amusement park that revolutionized the industry and created a new form of entertainment, the story-driven theme park. Walt said that the idea for Disneyland was a simple one.

“It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company; a place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education.... Disneyland will sometimes be a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic. It will be filled with the accomplishments, the joys and hopes of the world we live in. And it will remind us and show us how to make these wonders a part of our own lives.”

Walt’s “simple idea,” proved to be very successful. His fantastic vision was brought to life by an amazingly talented group of artists, engineers and designers that he dubbed, The Imagineers. Together, Walt and the Imagineers created a world that allowed guests to transcend their every day experience, discovering new ideas and possibilities.

Wouldn't it be cool if we could say the same about our schools? They should sometimes be a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, museums of living knowledge (not dead facts) and a showplace of beauty and magic.

Unfortunately, schools have traditionally looked more like the 19th century factories that they were often modeled after than Disneyland. While things like dress codes and technology have changed, the way in which we “do school,” in too many places, has changed very little.

But change, it can.

For many years, I've been exploring ways that we can make our schools, and the teaching and learning that occurs within them, more in line with Walt’s vision for his park. Over the course of several trips to Disney World I began to really appreciate the brilliant job that the Imagineers do in skillfully crafting these immersive environments that can transport their guests anywhere in the world, from the rolling waters of the Mississippi River to the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

We can apply the same processes to create immersive experiences in our schools as well.

So what do the Imagineers do to create such amazing places? First, they understand the power of BLUE SKY THINKING, a brainstorming process that challenges participants to think big; to”Dream it! Then Do it!” All ideas are welcomed and no idea is shunned during this initial stage of problem-solving. It’s this type of uninhibited thinking that can lead to innovative solutions to problems.

We desperately need Blue Sky Thinking for our schools. We need teachers, parents, community members, and most of all, students, to be involved in redesigning education for the 21st century. We need to dream big, or else we’re liable to settle for living small.

Secondly, like the Imagineers, we can tap into the power of STORY. They’ll tell you that this is the most important element of every attraction. The Imagineers understand that we’re wired for stories. Stories engage us, they teach us, and they challenge us to action. Disneyland was created as a way to bring Walt’s stories to life, to move them from the silver screen and into our living, breathing world. Each ride has its own story and the spaces surrounding that ride are designed to support the story through engaging all of your senses.

Legendary Imagineer John Hench used to say that, “All thinking is conceptual and begins with seeing, hearing, touching and sense perception.” If this is the case, then our thoughts can be shaped through engaging the senses. Walk through any attraction at a Disney park and you’ll see what I mean.

Have you ever experienced the Haunted Mansion? Freaked me out as a kid! The level of detail is amazing! You pass these tomb stones as you wait in line (hello…dead people up ahead); it’s cold in there; cob webs everywhere, the attendants never smile; then you here that creepy organ music. These spaces are designed in such a way that every element contributes to the telling of the story.

Color, music, even smells are used to create a feeling that you’ve been transported from your everyday world to a very special place. (If you’ve ever baked cookies before showing a house that you’re selling, you know what I mean).

This same design process can be applied to schools. EVERYTHING within and related to the school should be considered design elements to be carefully crafted to support the teaching and learning related to the specific space: furniture, lighting, colors, landscape and even sounds. Each of these can be used to set the tone, enhance the mood, and impart a story.

I’ve practiced this for years in my own classrooms.

Each year, I intentionally designed my classroom in a way that would engage the senses of all of my students and impart the feeling that this space was different than all others in the building. I wanted it to be a safe-haven for learning, not only about the history that I taught, but also about life. The student artwork, the movie posters, the toys, the music we listened to each day, the apple cinnamon air freshener for covering the musty smell of a portable, all worked together to create the notion that this was a special place.

Like the Imagineers, I also tapped into the power of great stories and used them to make learning relevant to the lives of my students. In order to give new life to the stories of history and mythology, I taught concepts within those subjects through using that timeless classic…Star Wars. The learning connections are numerous, from parallels to ancient Rome, Nazi Germany, and the American West, to cautionary tales about the dangers of technology, and the impact of the Hero’s Journey upon literature and myth. Students loved it and so did I, especially because I saw the level of learning that took place as we critically analyzed this popular saga (to learn more, visit www.starwarsintheclassroom.com).

Recently, I received a Facebook message from one my former students, Richard. He said, “Hey Coach, to this day, I still tell people about the similarities between Star Wars and mythology.” I taught Richard sixteen years ago, and he still remembers the purpose behind those lessons.

You see, powerful stories, told well, engage the senses and elicit emotional responses that result in learning that lasts. With that said, consider this: what story is your classroom telling?

Finally, perhaps the greatest lesson that I’ve learned from the Imagineers is the value of PLAY and the creativity that it encourages.

Walt Disney wanted to create a place where the young and old could play together. He understood our ability to learn through play and so the parks are designed to encourage playfulness at every turn.

Beyond emotional and social well-being, what is the value of play? It’s this: as the award-winning Disney producer Don Hahn says, “play is the welcome cousin of creativity.”

Think about it. When you were a child, when were you the most creative? It was probably while you were playing. Did you use your imagination when playing? Did you use it to solve problems or to create? Of course you did. Did you ever make your own toys? Have you ever build a fort or club house from pillows, blankets, and sheets? If so, then why did you ever stop?

You see, play is the incubator for creativity and problem-solving. It allows us to experiment without inhibition or judgment. This freedom can lead to innovative ideas and breakthrough thinking. If we know that we learn from play, then why do we tell kids to “stop playing and grow up”?

We should create schools where learning and play are not mutually exclusive of one another.

A classroom that’s designed to be playful allows kids to take chances, dream big, build things, make mistakes, and then learn from their mistakes…because it’s really okay to make mistakes.

Is this mindset reflected in your classroom or your school? If not, then try creating a playful atmosphere and watch what happens.

We can all be the Imagineers of our schools.

We can find our story, give voice to it, display it for all to see and allow ourselves to have fun while doing so. Better yet, we can guide our students in doing the same for themselves.

Let’s dream it, then let’s do it! Let’s make our schools, our classrooms, and our lives, “showplaces of beauty and magic.”

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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