When a construction site is next door

Street closures and high noise levels from construction on or near school grounds or other early childhood programs may disrupt the daily routine. Using the engineering habit of mind of optimism, defined as “a world view in which possibilities and opportunities can be found in every challenge and an understanding that technology can be improved” (Katehi et al., 2009, p. 152) educators at the Clarendon Child Care Center, Kathy Connell, Sarah Abu-El-Hawa, and Carly Gertler used the occasion of children’s interest in the cranes at the on-going construction to bring materials out to the playground for children to create their own cranes in 2-D and 3-D representations.

Welcome Kathy, Sarah, and Carly!

Our inspiration for this project presented itself in the construction site diagonally across the street from our playground. Each day as we walked to the playground our group of 16 four and five year-olds noticed the cranes and commented on their presence along with their characteristics. The children talked about how high the cranes stood, how the jibs extend out further from the site—even above the playground, the flapping flags at the ends of the jibs, and the hoists attached to the jibs that lifted building material from the flatbed trailers parked on the streets onto the worksite. 

Kathy set out a short row of chairs on the playground and clipboards with paper and markers. The children accepted this invitation and drew their impressions of the cranes. We also set out Mobilo manipulatives on the picnic table and children built their own versions of cranes. By printing with paint using the Mobilo shapes children created 2-dimensional cranes. Photos of cranes by Kathy’s father contributed information on other types of cranes. 

The next day we provided a straws and star connection building set and children continued to “build up.” Building with magnetic tiles in the morning sun on days that followed extended the children’s understanding of how large structures are made of smaller units. The light shining through the tiles cast jewel-toned shadow shapes surprising the children and added to their design. In discussion with the construction site manager teachers helped children think about the height of the crane by figuring out how many children would need to stand head-to-feet to be the same height as the (more than 200 foot tall) crane.

The teachers made the children’s work visible to their families, other classes, and the children themselves by creating a documentation panel on the wall. (The classes show their creativity in another way–the names they choose for themselves!) The children’s documentation shows that some are aware of the diagonal cross pieces in the jib and tower. I wonder if sometime they will explore the use of diagonals and triangles in structures, perhaps using K’nex or other building materials.


Katehi, Linda; Pearson, Greg; & Feder, Michael (Eds.). (2009). Engineering in K-12 education: Understanding the status and improving the prospects. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/12635/engineering-in-k-12-education-understanding-the-status-and-improving

Van Meeteren, Beth and Betty Zan. 2010. Revealing the Work of Young Engineers in Early Childhood Education. SEED Papers: Published Fall 2010, Early Childhood Research & Practice, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/beyond/seed/zan.html 

This entry was posted in Early Years and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When a construction site is next door

  1. Brenden Baker says:

    Good evening,
    My name is Brenden Baker and I am currently a 3rd year student at Wartburg College in Waverly, IA and I am majoring in Elementary Education with a science and middle school endorsement. Growing up, I remember vividly how distracting construction could be, whether in the school or outside of it. I love how you transformed this inconvenience into something that you could use to not only your benefit, but also the students. Having them go outside and draw what they see if beneficial for the students. It allows them to get a break from the classroom and learn in a new environment. It also allows them to use their creativity, as well as connect what they see/learn to real world experiences that allow for deeper understanding. I created a lesson plan that I think you could adapt to make fit within your classroom for your students, and would be a great pre or post activity after doing this. It consists of giving them students mini-marshmallows, toothpicks or spaghetti to save money, as well as some play-doh. With these materials students will build structures from the toothpicks and marshmallows. These structures can be tested against hypothetical natural disasters within the class. After the first couple runs of building their structures, give them the play-doh and have them reinforce the sides to make them more sturdy and more likely to withstand disasters. After the activity you can have a discussion on why engineers build structures the way they do, connecting with what the students had just seen outside, as well as talking about how structures change based on locations that are more susceptible to things like natural disasters. I hope you take this into consideration and appreciate the idea to use construction to your advantage as a teacher!

    Thank you,
    Brenden Baker

    • Peggy Ashbrook says:

      Thanks for commenting, Brenden, and sharing a construction activity that has re-design built into the process! I’ll make sure the teachers see it.
      Best wishes,

  2. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    At my local library I discovered a book that is a perfect companion to children’s observations of a construction site: Skyscraper by Jorey Hurley. 2019. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books. Available from the author at:

    Each page has a pleasing picture of a different construction vehicle, including a crane, doing part of the work to build really, really tall building, along with a verb describing the vehicle’s action. The glossary at the back helps us understand the technical terms for the parts and work of the vehicles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *