Pop-up traffic garden a non-crash course in road safety

The pop-up traffic garden at the Child Development Center on Mason's Fairfax Campus was a dry run for Mason research that will begin in late August at two Washington, D.C., public elementary schools. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

As the two balance-bike riders approached the intersection, a crash seemed inevitable. But at the last moment, the helmeted riders slowed to a stop, with one telling the other he could proceed first.

For Rick Holt, it was a highlight moment.

“What we want to do is share the rules,” he said of the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds who maneuvered through the pop-up traffic garden at George Mason University’s Child Development Center (CDC). “And then we want to see what they do.”

Clearly, these two students did it right.

The pop-up traffic garden was the next step in an ambitious research project in which a Mason team, with a $150,000 grant from the District Department of Transportation, helped install traffic gardens at Neval Thomas and Maude E. Aiton public elementary schools in Washington, D.C.

The gardens are actually mini streetscapes that serve as learning labs for educating preschool students on bicycle safety and rules of the road, and as catalysts for children’s social and emotional growth.

Ellen Rodgers, associate dean in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, is the principal investigator for the design and construction of the gardens, curricular development and the innovative research that will follow. Holt, a trainer and organizational development consultant in Mason’s Office of Human Resources and Payroll, and a master’s student in educational psychology, is the project manager and research co-principal investigator. Early childhood education assistant professor Carley Fisher-Maltese is the lead in curriculum and research activities.

With research at the D.C. sites set to begin in late August, the team had to make sure the data collection process works.

For example, the interactions of the D.C. students will be audio- and videotaped, with permission, to record their interactions and learn if the road-safety curriculum the team developed will transfer from the classroom to the playground. The one-day traffic garden event at the CDC on Mason’s Fairfax Campus—with Fionnuala Quinn, director of Discover Traffic Gardens, helping facilitate the construction—was an opportunity to test the equipment.

“It was a win-win,” Rodgers said, “a way of doing a dry run to ensure all goes smoothly on-site and working with the CDC staff to create an educational, playful and enjoyable experience for the kids. It was also an opportunity to see what this might mean for creating a traffic garden on campus in the future.”

With Holt’s gentle coaching, it didn’t take long for the students to understand and use the rules of the road.

“Is a train coming?” Holt asked students approaching the mock railroad crossing.

“Is anyone coming your way?” he asked at a yield sign.

“No? Good,” he said. “Now you can go.”

“The CDC was very enthusiastic when we brought this idea to them,” Holt said. “The active play space gets the kids outdoors and experiencing a new way of learning.”

“Any time we find a research project that fits within our philosophy that children learn through play, we want to support that,” said Erin Geiger, the CDC’s assistant director. “We want to further the understanding of best practices for children.”