A class of fifth graders became product designers, making cardboard reading easels to meet the needs of their first grade clients.  

The project was inspired by the Adaptive Design Association, a non-profit organization in Manhattan that builds custom-fit adaptations of furniture, equipment, toys, and other items for infants and children with special needs. Many of their products are made out of corrugated cardboard, which is strong, commonly available, inexpensive, and recyclable. In 2015, Alex Truesdell, Adaptive Design’s founder and executive director, won a MacArthur “genius” award for her work.

Working with schools is a priority for Adaptive Design. Project coordinator Talya Feldman explains, “It is our vision that in learning our techniques, individuals like the teachers at Riverdale will be able to teach their students to not only change their environment with resources at hand — but also know that their innovations and imaginations can change lives.”

The work with Adaptive Design was also a natural fit for Riverdale, which encourages “maker” projects and works to instill empathy and selflessness in the students as part of its emphasis on character education. Feldman points out that “Riverdale is unique in that the teachers were the ones to take our courses.” Typically Adaptive Design teaches students directly, but Riverdale is leading by example, teaching students Adaptive Design techniques at the River campus.

In February, five teachers attended a one-day workshop at the agency called Cardboard Basics, in which they learned how to measure, cut, assemble and decorate different objects out of rigid, corrugated cardboard. The teachers included Stacey Cummings and Lee Pearson, who teach fifth grade; Rachel Beane, the Lower School technology integrator; and Laurie Bartels, the Lower School STEAM integrator and environmental education facilitator.

The teachers then brought their experience back to the River campus. Cummings’s class of fifth graders were assigned to groups, each with the mission to create a cardboard reading easel/book carrier for a first grader. The groups were instructed to treat the project as if the first grader was their client. The group interviewed each client and assessed the client’s needs and preferences for size, decoration, and comfort.

After learning proper safety measures, the students made measurements and cuts to the thick pieces of cardboard, according to their custom design. They then glued the pieces together and once the easels were dry, decorated them with paint, sparkles, and stickers. The project culminated with each group presenting their finished, personalized easel to their first-grade client. The easels were put to immediate use as each group read a book with their respective client, resting it up against the easel’s book holder.

Alden, one of the fifth graders, admits that while cutting the cardboard was the hardest part, decorating it was the most fun. A fifth grader in another group, Talia, agrees. She adds that by the look on her first-grade client’s face when he was presented with his easel, she thinks he will get good use out of it the rest of the school year.

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