Seventh-Grader's Projects (and Cute Hedgehogs) Help Promote Why We Play
Updated: Jun 14
“One of the best things about play is that you get to choose what you want to do.” For Masconomet seventh-grader Rose Leon this freedom is also part of what she loved about two culminating projects for her seventh-grade team at their Innovation / Power of One Celebration.
The Innovation Project has students identify a skill they want to learn and a mentor in their life they can meet with regularly to learn their new skill. The Power of One Project has students do any small act they choose to make a positive difference in the world.
For many students, these projects end up being directly linked: for example, a student might learn to bake with their grandmother, and then give cookies to a Fire Department. Or these two projects could focus on different activities: a student might learn to play an instrument from a family friend, and also shovel a neighbor’s walkway. But they still share an essential connection of student choice and voice. Students have some freedom to choose what they want to learn, and how they want to give.
Tri-Town Council (TTC) is grateful to have been a partner in these projects this year, because Rose chose to work with her neighbor and TTC’s Communications and Development Manager Bonnie Thornborough, on designing flyers for TTC’s “Why We Play” campaign.
“I remembered that Ms. Thornborough always worked on creating our elementary school yearbooks, and I liked the idea of learning how to do graphic design with her,” said Rose. “I also wanted to create something that could be displayed at Masco, and the ‘Why We Play’ campaign seemed like a great way to do that.”
For seventh-grade Social Studies teacher Pat Mahoney, the originator and leader of the Innovation Project, Rose’s project was one of many wonderful examples that have come from his original vision. “Rose really nailed it. She found someone in her life she could connect with through a shared interest and passion. And the posters she created were amazing; we got to see them all around the building.”
Seventh-grade English teacher Mike Morris, the originator and leader of the Power of One Project, couldn’t agree more. “We enjoyed seeing Rose’s engagement and interest all year. Hers was a great example of how the Innovation / Power of One project can have a level of civic engagement. Her posters really helped motivate other kids—all of us—to think about the value of play.”
Ms. Thornborough said that Rose’s project came at a perfect time. “In our campaigns we love to have youth voice and involvement, and this was especially important in our new campaign about the value of true free-play. It was really fun and effective to have Rose use her youthful perspective and playful creativity in designing the imagery and messages in her posters,” said Thornborough, adding: “We needed her adorable hedgehogs to tell this story.”
“People would ask me: why hedgehogs?” said Rose. “Basically, I knew I wanted to use some kind of animal characters in the campaign, and just before I went over to meet with Ms. Thornborough, I saw my stuffed hedgehog on my bed and thought hedgehogs would be cute animals to use.”
This type of intuitive and personal inspiration was a theme throughout their creative sessions together. As the mentor and mentee brainstormed in their first meeting, Rose used inspiration from her own youthful memories with neighborhood friends—who happen to be Ms. Thornborough’s kids, Haidyn and Spencer.
“I remember how much fun we used to have playing outside, making up our own games of four-square, basketball, football, jackpot, and adventures in the woods. The story I wanted to tell in my posters reminded me of those times,” said Rose.
Using the PATS (Purpose, Audience, Topic, Style) method she had learned in English class, Rose said she felt as though showing examples of cute hedgehogs playing, with short, word-bubble conversations, would catch the attention of her audience, middle-school youth.
She first sketched the hedgehogs, then together they created graphics from her sketches. Rose then used Canva to create each different playful activity and the word-bubbles for the hedgehogs.
The posters were used to promote TTC’s Global School Play Day event at the Middle School on February 1, and also to more generally promote the importance of play for healthy youth development.
Rose said, “As you get older, schedules get busier and you don’t have time to just play and have fun. Play is healthy because it is relaxing and fun. It’s important to have time when you don’t have to worry about stuff like school or work. And with true play you’re not keeping score like in organized sports. There is no pressure.”
“Not only is it fun, relaxing, and stress-relieving,” said Ms. Thornborough. “Play is a method of learning that is very deep and authentic—in part because it is self-chosen and self-directed.”
At the Innovation / Power of One Celebration on May 30, parents, students and staff got a chance to tour all the different student displays, including photos and writing of the self-chosen work students did throughout the year. Rose was proud to have other kids recognize her posters that they had seen around the school. Some parents even scanned the QR code to learn more about the Why We Play campaign.
“This is my favorite part,” said Mr. Mahoney about the celebration fair. “This culminating experience is when students get to share what they have accomplished. It’s nice to see not only how proud parents and caregivers are, but also to see students being proud of themselves.”
When he originally envisioned the Innovation Project about ten years ago, he was developing a culminating project for his CAGS (Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies). “I really had the kids in mind,” said Mr. Mahoney. “I wanted to give kids the opportunity to really think about their own interests—something they might enjoy learning. It could be anything: baking, carpentry, sewing, music. Any kind of new skill they wanted to learn, especially something outside of traditional ‘academic’ learning.”
His vision was in part to help foster confidence in students “that they can learn to do anything.” His vision also had a lot to do with community engagement, which is an essential element of the Power of One project, too. “I wanted to encourage kids to take risks and extend themselves into the community by connecting with a mentor outside of school,” said Mr. Mahoney.
For Mr. Morris, making connections with others is a very meaningful aspect of both projects. He enjoys seeing kids spend time with a grandparent, family member, or other caring adult. “It’s so simple, and so powerful,” he said. “It’s easy to overlook the value of the people in our lives, but sometimes the littlest things can mean so much.” He added that he also loves when students decide to do something for total strangers, such as placing rocks painted with uplifting messages along a trail. “That connection is powerful, too.”
When reflecting on his favorite aspect of the projects, Mr. Morris said that he loves to witness “the simple realization that it’s really not that hard to make a big difference.” The Power of One project has evolved in different ways over about ten years, but has always been driven by his core philosophy of “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” He said he likes to encourage students to “think globally; act locally” and throughout the year he hopes to help cultivate a mindset of always looking for opportunities to give back, which is “an essential part of fostering a culture of kindness and positivity.”
Building an environment that feels healthy, safe and positive is important to both Mr. Morris and Mr. Mahoney. They hope that through the Innovation and Power of One projects, every student has positive interactions and experiences with other people. They believe this not only affects how students feel about the world, but also affects the culture inside the school, too.
In addition to Rose’s Why We Play posters for TTC, she also participated in Boston’s Walk for Hunger in May. “I know my posters made a positive difference helping TTC spread the word of free play and getting kids to go to the Global Play Day, but I also wanted to do something bigger that helped more people,” said Rose. She was proud to say that she walked three miles and donated $300 to help raise over a million dollars for people who need food.
Mr. Morris said, “Some students do big projects, such as their own fundraisers or large events, which is amazing. But even in a simple lemonade stand, we hope they get to see how generous and kind people really are.”
In Rose’s tri-fold she echoed this sentiment, stating: “The Power of One is how one person can do something that helps people and the world in a positive way. It doesn’t have to be big, it can also be something small. But the Power of One is doing something out of the goodness of their hearts.”
As an expanded aspect of the Power of One, seventh-grade teachers often share little video clips of “good news” stories with their classes. This effort helps to balance with their study of major current events, which might not always be very positive or uplifting. Mr. Morris said, “We want students to understand that there is so much good in the world, and that they can be a part of that—both outside of school, and within the school, too.”
This is why an essential part of the process is the reflective writing students do about their projects and experience. “No matter what they do, reflecting and writing helps students be aware of what they have learned,” said Mr. Morris. “We hope it also helps them carry those lessons with them as they move on from seventh grade.”
Ms. Thornborough couldn’t help but connect these efforts with TTC’s mission. “As an organization focused on youth mental health, community engagement, social-emotional learning, risk behavior prevention, and positive norms, it is wonderful to know that these themes are at the core of Masco’s middle-school education,” she said. “It all ties so beautifully with what we do, and so much of the Why We Play campaign.”
Reflecting on the value of these connections, she said, “It was such a delight to work with Rose this year—and so fun to witness her creativity in action. We look forward to continuing this kind of work with students, educators, and families.”
And as for the hedgehogs, they are happy they got some time in the limelight. Taking a break from their newest frisbee game, Jeff said, “We are all designed to naturally grow and learn, try new ideas, figure out what we enjoy, and help each other out. That’s why we play, and that’s why it’s fun. It’s good for everyone, and it helps make the world a better place.”
Jeff added: “Check out these resources about the role of play in healthy development, including the documentary film Chasing Childhood:”