The Interactive Outdoor Classroom at Hartranft Elementary / by EricOkdeh

One of the two big commissions I've been working on this summer finds me back at Hartranft Elementary School at 8th and Cumberland Sts. I spent this past spring conceptualizing ways to turn a very odd tucked away space (located at the rear of the school outside of the kindergarten classrooms) into an interactive learning space that K-8th Grade students could enjoy.

Picking up where Jenny Shanker (the lead muralist at the site in 2008) left off was no easy task. I wanted to be able to put my own spin on the space, while taking into consideration all the hard work that came before. View Jenny's blog covering her time at the site here.

In 2008, my Mural Corps class and I designed and painted a tree in the front of the school, as well as gameboards that were cut out of stone and tile and installed on benches. These pieces would serve as a jumping off point in my design of the Kindergarten space.

Aside from a focus on education, the community decided on an interesting theme/idea for the space "What would it look like if you were the size of an insect?" That's it! That's all I had to go on. Once again I was given control over the budget, and we looked to include elements and work with materials that I've never experimented with before.

The tree in 2008 was a result of my students' vector drawing exercises. I took the same idea and applied it to the entire space this time using blades of grass.


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Then I took a look at those windows. The grates on the outside give the area a caged in feel that's not at all warm or inviting. I am working with a metal artist Rob D'amico, providing him with drawings so he can fabricate a metal framework that will go on top of the mesh. This framework will outline and continue the grass motif over the windows, and will be brightly colored to all but phase out the mesh from view. We need to keep the old panels underneath for safety reasons.


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Rob has also spent time installing sheets of metal over the three columns that divide the space. I created and invented magnetic games out of these columns, that are based on parts of the curriculum that teachers felt were significant problem areas for the students.


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Column one is about metric system conversions, the students are able to fill in the blanks with the correct numbers or decimals.

Column two concerns: number sequencing, the time of day on different clock faces, and data measurement. The data measurement face was my contribution and not based off of the teachers input. I felt that these modern units of measurement are equally as important, and the school also understands the relevance and need for basic computer literacy. To make the sheer size and scope of a term like an exabyte palatable to a young student, I thought about music and did some math. Considering an average song is a 5MB file, I calculated how much continuous music there is in a Kilobyte, Megabyte, Gigabyte, Terabyte, Petabyte, Exabyte, Zettabyte, Yottabyte,and Brontobyte. (By the way an Exabyte is 1,994,927 years of continuous music)

Column three concerns: Basic Symmetry, Spelling, and the US Standard of Measurement.
Continuing the insect theme, the symmetry face involves quadrants of a butterfly that need to be matched to find symmetrical markings. The honeycomb patterns for spelling bees. An inchworm broken up into many magnetic fragments that can measure to a few inches, feet or a yard.


While painting the notches on the Inchworm wall I found an ACTUAL inchworm walking around on the column.

The fourth face of all the columns falls in line underneath a larger wall that Jenny painted and set ceramic tile on. I kept the grass motif on these faces so as to not interrupt the work above too much.



I managed to work the floorspace into the design as well. The northwest corner of the space will serve as the classroom, I ordered prefabricated benches and tables that will seat 24 students, The wall next to the windows is painted with chalkboard paint.

The floor is painted with concrete stain. The corners of the space have been completely brightened. I managed to work in a Venn Diagram, and Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, and Division games as well as a number grid into the floor.


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The games and grids will be done in slate tiles. The same colors used for the bench games a few years back. The games as well as the fencing are still a work in progress.

Finally to end the concept, we have some maps. The teachers found that their students really struggle with geography, especially locally. They have a hard time figuring out where they fit into the larger scheme of the city. The students and I projected three maps all with a "You Are Here" key to give this sense of place. The city map breaks Philadelphia down into neighborhoods, the state map into counties, and the country map into States. The country map is painted in chalkboard paint so students could fill in the abbreviations of each state. The Mural Corps Students were surprised to see just how many counties in the state we've named our streets after.

I cant make this post without mentioning the class of students I worked with this summer. Under the instruction of Charles Barbin, this group worked hard (in one of the most steamy Julys I can remember) in order to pull this one off. They were a lot of fun to work with, and they really made me miss teaching. Thank you Shawn, Anthony, Brandon, Jahbree, Raushanah, Juliett, Geraldine, Zoie, Gabby, Ashlee, Brittney, Jazemine, and Korrie. I also can't forget to mention my interns Julia Jack- Scott and Latasha Billington who braved the heat at this site, and then assisted me in the afternoons in my oven of a studio on my other commission.


The site isn't 100% finished as of this post. The tables need to be shipped and installed, the metal blades of grass fabricated, painted and installed, and the tile games have to be set into the ground. All this should be done by the time I leave by the end of September.


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