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Innovative Technology Enhances Outdoor Learning Experiences With Playground Physics

Connected Science Learning July–August 2023 (Volume 5, Issue 4)

By Michaela Labriole, Judith Hutton, Laycca Umer, and Kate Maschak

Innovative Technology Enhances Outdoor Learning Experiences With Playground Physics

Children swinging on a swing set. A pair of kids playing catch. A child zipping down a slide. Groups of kids using iPads? While technology may not be the obvious choice for a playground, the combination of technology and physical play is the foundation for Playground Physics, a free digital application and supplemental curriculum for grades 6–8 developed by the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI).

Middle grade students in the United States are very likely to experience physics instruction that is fragmented, didactic, and highly structured (Meltzer 2021). This is particularly true for students from backgrounds that have historically been excluded from educational opportunities in the physical sciences, including Black and Latinx youth, girls, and gender expansive youth, and youth from low-income communities (Krakehl and Kelly 2021; Smerdon et al. 1999). Lack of training and professional development for physics educators and lack of quality, inquiry-based curricular materials contribute to these inequities (Meltzer 2021). Playground Physics, which was developed specifically for formal classrooms, seeks to address these issues in physics instruction by providing learning resources inspired by the playful, engaging experience of NYSCI’s Science Playground, a 60,000-square-foot outdoor science playground that has equipment like slides, a seesaw, and a sandpit, and encourages interest-driven, full-body experimentation. The use of informal learning approaches in a formal classroom setting provides an important pathway to students’ active involvement in exploring physics concepts that are relevant to them.

Using the app, students record their physical play; tap points on the screen to trace a path of motion; and use different stickers, lenses, and graphs in the app to annotate and analyze their play experiences. Through the course of three accompanying curriculum units focused on motion, force, and energy, students use their own play as grounds to ask questions, identify patterns in data, and analyze and interpret the data presented in the app.

For example, the motion unit of the curriculum begins by asking students to describe the motion of a ball while playing catch, surfacing students’ prior knowledge and serving as a foundation for asking questions that can be investigated using the app. Students then go to the playground, an outdoor area, or any open space to record themselves playing catch, and use the app to trace the path of the ball’s motion as they pass it back and forth. The app provides students with data about the ball’s distance, speed, and direction. Students might choose to add “high speed” and “low speed” special effects stickers at various points in the video to help identify patterns in what they’re seeing. Additional activities from the curriculum encourage students to graph the data and to investigate other questions such as “Are the patterns in the data the same no matter what type of ball or object I use”? As a culminating activity, students return to their original description of the ball’s motion to add more detail and to reflect on how their understanding has changed over time. By placing students at the center of their own learning through exploration of their play, Playground Physics aims to deepen students' physics knowledge and engagement with science as well as ultimately support a broad range of students' long-term interest in exploring the STEM fields.

Analyzing catch using the Motion Lens
Analyzing catch using the Motion Lens

A research study in New York City demonstrated an increase in knowledge and understanding of physics concepts for students who participated in the Playground Physics program (Friedman et al. 2017). A current scale-up study—a partnership with The New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education (NYSCATE) and American Institutes for Research (AIR)—allowed NYSCI to work with a broader range of teachers in urban, suburban, and rural settings across New York State. Through this process, participating teachers shared some of the key benefits of using Playground Physics outside on the playground.           

  1. Lean into kids’ natural inclinations: Many children already use video-based technology, even on the playground, so rather than steering them away from technology use, the program harnesses this student interest as an entry point for outdoor STEM learning. Teachers who used the resources to support physics instruction reported both higher levels of student engagement and deeper understanding of complex topics (Margolin et al. 2023).
  2. Extend the outdoor experience back in the classroom: Since physics is often taught in winter in New York State, some teachers suggest capitalizing on the warm weather at the beginning of the school year and having students record videos for later use. Having videos to refer back to during chilly winter months helps extend the playful outdoor experience throughout the school year.
  3. Visualize physical play experiences: The majority of teachers reported that a key strength of the resources is that they help students visualize key physics concepts present in their own play activities. The curriculum offers suggestions for different roles students can take in capturing video so that everyone gets a chance for both tech-enhanced and tech-free outdoor play.
Analyzing a game of basketball using the Energy Lens
Analyzing a game of basketball using the Energy Lens

While this feedback is specific to Playground Physics, it echoes literature about the benefits of using technologies to augment outdoor learning (Anderson et al. 2015; Broda 2011; Horton et al. 2013; Zita 2008). Rather than acting as a barrier to outdoor play, technology is now a necessary support for amplifying students' felt experiences and helping them deeply connect with content. At the end of the day, when making decisions about how to incorporate technology, it’s most important to consider your “what”: What are your goals for outdoor learning and what technology might enhance or extend learners’ experience?

The app and supplemental lessons can be found at

Michaela Labriole is the Director of Strategic Education Initiatives at NYSCI in Corona, New York. Judith Hutton is a Coordinator of Strategic Education Initiatives at NYSCI in Corona, New York. Laycca Umer is the Manager, Research, Exhibits & Programs at NYSCI in Corona, New York. Kate Maschak is a Senior Science Instructor at NYSCI Corona, New York.


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Broda, H.W. 2011. Moving the classroom outdoors: Schoolyard-enhanced learning in action. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Friedman, L.B., J. Margolin, A. Swanlund, S. Dhillon, and F. Liu. 2017. Enhancing MiddleSchool Science Lessons with Playground Activities: A Study of the Impact of Playground Physics. American Institutes for Research.

Horton J., R. Hagevik, B. Adkinson, J. Parmly. 2013. Get connected: Incorporating technology into your lessons does not mean you have to stay indoors! Science and Children 50 (7): 44–49.

Krakehl, R., and A.M. Kelly. 2021. Intersectional analysis of Advanced Placement Physics participation and performance by gender and ethnicity. Physical Review Physics Education Research 17 (2): 020105.

Margolin, J., C. Chandra, L.B. Friedman, K. Guyot, M. Labriole, M. Legault, A. Roach, L. Umer, S. Uzzo. 2023. Enhancing middle school physical science lessons with embodied learning [Paper presentation]. NARST 2023: Chicago, IL, United States.

Meltzer, D.E. 2021. How should physics teachers be prepared? A review of recommendations. The Physics Teacher 59 (7): 530–534.

Smerdon, B.A., D.T. Burkam, and V.E. Lee. 1999. Access to constructivist and didactic teaching: Who gets it? Where is it practiced? Teachers College Record 101 (1): 5–34.

Zita, A. 2008. Technology works in the outdoors. Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education 20 (2): 8–10.

Instructional Materials Physics STEM Technology Middle School Informal Education

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