Earlier this month our intern Max wrote an article about why it’s important to teach kids that there are better transportation options than cars.
A few days later I tried it with a bunch of third graders.
Last year I was a counselor at the National Building Museum’s built environment-themed summer camp. The camp’s goal is to help kids appreciate the world around them, and how its design impacts their lives.
This year, my former boss invited me back to teach a lesson on sustainable and multimodal transportation – or, in her words, “why public transportation is better than driving alone.” Obviously, I lept at the opportunity, which is how I found myself sitting on a giant map one Thursday morning instead of at my desk.
This is the short lesson plan I created for the third graders that covers urban geometry, traffic, and congestion pricing (maybe it was a little bit ambitious). Feel free to replicate it with your kids or in your classroom.
Before the lesson started, I used duct tape to make two rectangles on the ground. One rectangle was very large and the other was small. These were supposed to represent a bus or subway and a car, respectively.
Thinking about transportation habits
To get the kids interested, I began by asking them how they got to camp that morning. About half came by Metro and the other half were driven by their parents. We started talking about which modes they prefer.
Talking about geometry
Inspired by Jarrett Walker, I thought the easiest way to help kids understand why public transportation works better in cities than cars was geometry: that public transportation can fit more people in less space.
I asked them if buildings in Washington, DC were far apart or close together, and if those buildings were big or small. When we reached the consensus that DC is dense and that there are a lot of people in a small space, we moved on to the first activity.
Activity 1: How many people fit?
I asked kids to volunteer to “ride in the car.” Since the duct tape rectangle representing the car was smaller, only two kids could fit.
Then I asked kids to volunteer to “ride in the bus.” Many more kids fit in the bus than the car. We discussed this.
The National Building Museum has a beautiful elevated walkway that rings its ginormous atrium. I utilized this for a “race” that demonstrated how streetscapes should prioritize sustainable transportation modes that carry more people in less space.
Most people (and kids) know how Red Light, Green Light is played. I twisted it in two ways: adding buses and subway trains, and adding “traffic.”
I asked kids to volunteer to ride a bus, a subway, and a car. The kids who were a bus or subway formed a line and held onto each others’ shoulders, Conga line style. The car kids were solo, like in traditional Red Light, Green Light.
Before we started playing, I emphasized to the campers that it wasn’t a race, merely a simulation of what actually happens on streets. I should have remembered what I learned as a camp counselor: no matter what you say, they’ll always think it’s a race.
For the first round, there was no “traffic”: just traditional Red Light, Green Light. The car kids got to the finish line first.
For the second round, I told the campers that when I yell “traffic!” the car kids had to take ittsy bittsy baby steps, and the bus and subway lines could keep going at their normal pace (this was supposed to demonstrate why bus lanes and dedicated rights of way are important).
At first this worked, but when the car kids realized they were losing, they stopped taking baby steps and roared ahead of the bus and subway lines. One kid even muttered to himself, “No one is beating my BMW!!” (What a great demonstration of road rage!)
A couple of tries later, the kids got it right. Afterwards I asked the campers what modes make the most sense in cities, and if we should have dedicated bus lanes and subway lines. We discussed from there.
Teachers and parents, how do you teach kids about sustainable transportation? What could we do better?
Photo of students parking their bikes at school by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab.