First Grade Builds a Healthy City Ecosystem

By Integrated Learning and Information Science Department members Sarah Beebe and Mary Catherine Coleman
What does a city need to be a healthy ecosystem? This was the big question 1st graders tackled during their ILIS project time!
Students started by reading Walking in the City with Jane: The Story of Jane Jacobs by Susan Hughes. The story describes the life of Jane Jacobs, one of the world’s greatest urban thinkers and activists. Jacobs believed that cities were amazing places to live and should be ecosystems designed for all people. Students talked about the parts of an ecosystem, both the living and nonliving elements. In small groups they explored other books, including The Curious Garden, featuring the Highline in New York and the 606 in Chicago. Some groups read The Secret Subway, the story of the origins of the New York City subway system. Students connected with the idea that, though many people originally considered building a train underground an impossible idea, sometimes impossible ideas end up being the ones that work. Students also explored books about bridges around the world, free little libraries and water systems in cities.
Next, 1st graders worked together on ways to reimagine and rebuild the city of Chicago as a healthy urban ecosystem. We started by brainstorming what a city needs for every person living there to be healthy, happy and safe. Students shared ideas about housing, transportation, water, green spaces, food, stores, places to work, exercise and entertainment spaces. They also talked about using green energy like solar panels and wind energy to take better care of the earth. First graders considered ways to make sure everyone has a place to live, food to eat and transportation.
The 1st graders’ next challenge was to design and build their Chicago neighborhood of the future. Students drew plans for their neighborhood ecosystem and, with their ideas on paper, they were ready to start prototyping. The ILIS team put together a maker cart full of building materials, including cardboard shapes with connectors to make buildings and structures, pipe cleaners, puff balls, colored construction paper and tissue paper, feathers, foam shapes and more. First graders started building! They built roads and waterways, future transportation systems, gardens on top of buildings, amazing playgrounds and houses, farmers markets and robots that deliver food to everyone. Students were creative in the materials they used and the designs they created. First graders also worked with classmates to connect their neighborhoods together.
Finally, students made videos explaining their neighborhoods, what they built and why their designs were healthy, happy and safe ecosystems for everyone. We placed all the neighborhoods together in the library to create a giant 1st grade prototype of the future City of Chicago. Students were creative and thoughtful in designing a space that would be a wonderful future ecosystem for our city.

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Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.