This wasn't your average playground.
For a single afternoon, at least, the structures, hoops and slides at Ponderosa Elementary School had transformed into a challenging obstacle course. After school on Sept. 14, groups of fifth-graders sped up the iron ladder and whizzed down the plastic slide; they rushed across the pebbled landscaping to the basketball court, where they shot hoops for speed and accuracy. They progressed to the grassy hill bordering the school, skipping through plastic rings, speeding through jump-rope routines and kicking a soccer ball into a goal.
Finally, they reached the point where they'd started, dipping a plastic cup into a bucket of water and gladly pouring the contents over their heads.
"Some of those obstacles were really hard and tiring. Dumping the water on my head, that was really fun," said fifth-grader Pryce Cantrell, pointing to another high point of the afternoon. "A lot of my friends are out here … I get to bond and meet new people."
Forging connections with fellow students and teachers was at the heart of the Ponderosa obstacle course, loosely modeled on the demanding trials of the TV show "American Ninja Warrior" and one of three events for fifth-graders at the school's "G.R.I.T. Night" event. Students also took part in an "Escape Room" activity consisting of a series of puzzles and riddles, as well as an egg drop experiment designed to test students' ingenuity and know-how in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
All of these activities were designed to stress the values behind the G.R.I.T. acronym, namely, growth, resilience, integrity and teamwork.
"We like to start our year at Ponderosa with some kind of team-building event, where kids have the opportunity to get to know each other," said Ashley Echols, fifth-grade teacher. "We're all about the feeling of family here at Ponderosa. We try to talk about growth, resilience, integrity and teamwork in the classroom every day, so we wanted to pick activities that would show those values."
On the obstacle course, students shouted encouraging words to one another as they progressed through the separate challenges. In the class designated as the "Escape Room," groups had to work together calmly and effectively to solve a series of difficult puzzles. The third activity saw students working on a way to protect an egg from the force of gravity – they used cardboard, tape, styrofoam and other classroom materials to build containers for their eggs, which were then dropped from the top of a ladder.
Echols said all three activities would help the oldest students in the school set a tone for the 2017-18 year, one that would affect the rest of the Ponderosa community.
"We believe in building a relationship with our students, and we believe in giving them the tools to be resilient later in life, after they leave fifth grade," Echols said. "We want to show them ways that they can persevere and get through tough times academically, socially, emotionally."
Ponderosa fifth-grader Semaj' Meadows seemed to tap into those lessons as she moved from the obstacle course to the escape room. Sporting a wide smile, she spoke of the promise of a new school year spent with close friends, the kind who could offer support and encouragement during the toughest of times.