Gerbils, Road Runners, and Freshmen Help Design Natural Playgrounds for City of Big Lake

February 1, 2018
The following is arranged on top of a sheet of cardboard, as a model of a nature playground made from natural material. Three empty toilet paper rolls taped together and have a string hanging down to make swings. Pink plastic lids of dish detergent bottles are strung together. Empty can of tomatoes. Empty kleenex boxes are in the background.

Let’s back up a little. The Sustainable Communities Partnership pairs metro-area cities and nonprofits with St. Thomas courses to tackle a sustainability issue and to give students hands-on learning experience. The City of Big Lake has been a partner since Spring of 2017, and one of their goals has centered on exploring possibilities for a new natural playground. That first semester, students in Psychology of Sustainability (PSYC 298) made recommendations on experiential park design, drawing on psychological research and theory about play, child development, and how people interact with natural spaces. With those recommendations in mind, the City of Big Lake wanted help coming up with concrete design concepts in Fall of 2017. This was a perfect fit for Prof AnnMarie Thomas’ engineering course, which has been collaborating for years with the preschoolers (called ‘Road Runners’) at the Child Development Center (CDC). During the fall 2017 semester, both the college students and the Road Runners were tasked with coming up with their own designs for a natural playground and presenting them to the Big Lake City Council.

UST St. Thomas freshman engineering students get project orientation from City of Big Lake City Planner, Michael Healy, for the Natural Playground Design project.

The project kicked off with a joint field trip to Big Lake. On the bus, each Road Runner was paired with a college student to read books and get to know each other during the hour-long drive. When they arrived, the preschoolers had a picnic and played. Meanwhile, the college students met with city staff to go over the project details and then spent time observing the Road Runners at play. Freshman Zak Hagglund reported that this was a major source of inspiration for his project: “Since we visited the playground with the preschoolers before brainstorming design ideas, I was able to incorporate their behaviors at the playground into the design my group created.”

For the rest of the semester, the college students worked in teams to research natural playgrounds and then use CAD software SolidWorks to create their own original designs. Meanwhile, the Road Runners would go come up with their own ideas, moving through each stage of the design process - from collecting information all the way through coming up with their own ideal playground. When the Road Runners first heard about the project, they didn’t quite get it. But as they visited several local ponds, rivers, and wooded areas that they use as ‘nature classrooms’, the task at hand slowly came into focus. At each place, they discussed what they liked and what was different about each one. Then the kids put their ideas down on paper, drawing pictures of their ideal nature playgrounds and describing the key elements.

Once the Road Runners had each made their own designs, they came together as a class to put their favorite ideas together in a miniature model. As Road Runner teacher Virginia Hanson explains “the ‘big kids’ were designing a natural playground for little kids, so we designed a natural playground for our gerbils.” They build their mini-natural playground out of cardborad, egg cartons, and tin cans, and when they were finished they let the gerbils Snippy and Snappy give it a try!

The project culminated in a final presentation, where the Road Runners and the college students presented their designs the City of Big Lake. The engineering students’ designs included elements like mushroom huts, treetop views, ponds, and ripple hills to foster environment learning, adventure, and child/parent interactions. As for the Road Runners, their designs included trees to climb, rock caves, water to explore, sticks & logs to create with, hills to slide down, & open places to explore & imagine. After the presentation, they had a pizza party to celebrate their hard work.


This partnership between the City of Big Lake, engineering students, and Road Runners yielded dividends all around. Michael Healy, city planner for Big Lake wrote “We have been extremely impressed with the quality of projects. Saint Thomas students have helped the City make real progress in planning out the addition of natural playgrounds to our parks system.”

For her part, freshman engineering student Grace Kubista said of the experience “I was surprised when I saw we were going on a trip with the Road Runners, and I think it helped me approach the project with a better perspective and understanding of what should be in the playground. I also think it was good for the kids to meet us and see how fun engineering and STEM can be.”

Road Runners teacher Virginia Hanson reflected that this kind of partnership is just plain fun and it’s a great way to learn. She has observed that “it’s good for the little kids to meet someone new, make a connection with a big kid” and see role models. She also thinks it’s good for the college students too: “They might see past versions of themselves. With the little kids, there is just no nervousness, no self-consciousness, and it’s good for the big kids to see that.” She explains “the whole connection between generations is important to the mission of the university, to being part of a community, and working together.”